Many think of 15s or sevens when talking about rugby, but the game is made up of many other formats: 10-a-side, tag rugby, touch rugby and beach rugby, deaf rugby, blind rugby and wheelchair rugby in para-sports, too. In Japan in particular, these other formats are growing in popularity.
Among them, tag rugby was introduced as a part of the physical education curriculum in primary schools across Japan; after Japan won the World Championship in 2018, wheelchair rugby caught the public eye and has grown in the time since. Still, however, neither sport has managed to capture the same level of attention as the men’s 15s game, especially since the success of Rugby World Cup 2019.
“They are also rugby sports that have no connection between each other, each works alone. That’s a sheer waste,” said former Japan captain Toshiaki Hirose. “I want to make them spread around so that they can be recognised better by the people in Japan.”
Hirose, capped 28 times by Japan, has started a new movement to help connect Japan’s various forms of rugby and promote them better to the Japanese public. And he’s doing it all through his newly formed non-profit, One Rugby.
As Japan’s Brave Blossoms reached the quarter-finals of last year’s Rugby World Cup, hundreds of thousands of “Niwaka” fans went on the journey with them. It became a Japanese sporting and social phenomenon.
Once RWC 2019 was over, these new fans moved on to follow the Japanese Top League. However, there remains a significant gap between the popularity for men’s 15s and the other forms of rugby, including the women’s game.
But women’s rugby, together with sevens and wheelchair rugby, will enjoy some time in the Japanese limelight in 2021 due to three major sporting events: RWC 2021 and the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Japan Men’s Sevens will be looking to challenge for a medal after finishing fourth four years ago; Japan’s wheelchair rugby team will be pushing for gold in Tokyo after winning bronze in Rio; and Japan’s women are still aiming to qualify for Rugby World Cup 2021 and surprise the world in New Zealand.
“Many people don’t know much about sevens, for example, and it needs more promotion,” Hirose said. “We have many athletes in various kinds of rugby, who are working so hard. I would like them to get known more by the people. If we, One Rugby, can support them to get more attention from the people, that would be good.
“It is becoming more common to have diversity and variations in individual ways of life in society. We’d like to help create the environment where everyone can enjoy themselves even if they are blind or need a wheelchair. We want to spread that idea through One Rugby,” he explained.
Taking advantage of the growing trend towards the men’s 15s game, Hirose, through One Rugby, is making progress in efforts to draw more attention to the sport from the Japanese people, and build a better understanding and system of support for rugby’s various formats. “I’ve got a feeling that the fans of the 15s game can stretch their support to other rugby sports,” said Hirose.
To help achieve this goal, One Rugby is planning to introduce a single calendar that covers all events from the various forms of rugby, giving players and fans the ability to see where and when the sport as a whole is being played.
“We are also planning to have events that can work like a multiplication. When people go to a rugby game, they can have an opportunity to learn other kinds of rugby. They can visit a booth of wheelchair rugby at a corner of the venue when they go to a beach rugby game.”
Hirose and One Rugby may only be focusing on success in Japan for now, but their sites are already set on bringing their work to other parts of Asia.
Grown through rugby
Hirose found the idea for the movement in his playing days. He claims to having always had concerns over the apparent gap in recognition between men’s 15s rugby and other forms of the sport in Japan.
Upon retiring from rugby in 2016, the former Japan captain quickly turned to entrepreneurship. Since then he has been involved in various projects, mainly in sports-related areas, such as an education scheme to help athletes build a second career after sport.
Another such project was a singing activity by Scrum Unison that would soon become integral to why Japan 2019 was so unique. The project encouraged Japanese fans to learn the national anthems of the visiting teams at Rugby World Cup 2019, which they would go on to sing together in unison with the visiting fans in the stadium on matchday. The movement contributed to the heart-warming atmosphere found in every match throughout the tournament.
The projects Hirose works on all have the same foundational mission: to connect people and enhance their possibilities through sport.
“They’ve come from the same place,” Hirose said,” and I think that owes to my experience of playing rugby, which is a global sport.”
He noted that he learned a lot from his various roles as captain in rugby, from high school and university teams, to Top League side Toshiba Brave Lupus and finally the Brave Blossoms – a role given to him by Eddie Jones.
“While captaining the teams, I learned that players can show their abilities best when they are feeling happy with the team. Once I noticed that, I always cared about the thoughts and feelings of my team-mates,” he said. “I think I have taken so many things from rugby, it is natural for me to give something back to it.”
Building up the base
After launching One Rugby in February 2020, Hirose and his company, which also included Takashi Kikutani – another former Japan captain – soon faced an unexpected development: the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. They were forced to suspend all planned activities, such as an event enabling people to experience two different forms of rugby at one venue.
Determined not to let the situation ruin this opportunity, Hirose and One Rugby ran an online session instead, where they introduced several rugby formats and taught attendees the specifics of each sport, including competition rules and seasons. The sessions were also delivered in sign language.
“We have to do whatever we can do for now,” said Hirose. “But it can be a help to get to know the rules of each rugby, as they are so varied and different from each other. We can learn an application difference between domestic rules and international, too. In tag rugby, for example, you cannot kick the ball in Japan, but that is allowed outside the country.
“We are hoping this can help fans have more depth to their interest in each rugby.”
The Influence of men’s 15s
Japan’s status on the men’s test stage went up several levels after the events at Rugby World Cup 2019. The team was set to compete with the likes of England, Ireland and France in the Autumn Nations Cup, but their appearance was called off due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, a historic meeting with the British and Irish Lions is now in the calendar for 2021.
The Japanese Top League is now also boosting rugby’s profile in the country, with the arrivals of leading international players like Rugby World Cup winners Makazole Mapimpi and Beauden Barrett, to name a couple, ahead of the league’s transformation to a more professional structure in January 2022.
Hirose admitted that the success of the Brave Blossoms and the Japanese Top League plays an important role in the impact of the One Rugby movement,
“The men’s 15s game is the symbol of Japanese rugby. That is a fact and its influence is huge,” he said. “It is important to have the game watched by many people. Winning is important, but it is more important what you can offer even if you cannot win.
“We have various kinds of rugby and we would like to make them boosted by all. That, I think, is a spirit of rugby.”