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Rugby World Cup legacy boosts Olympic rugby sevens interest in Japan
Rugby World Cup 2019 was transformational for rugby in Japan and across Asia. Now the nation looks forward to the world’s top players returning to the Land of the Rising Sun for the Olympic Games.
Koji Tokumasu remembers it like it was yesterday; a Wales team featuring Gareth Edwards and JPR Williams thrilled during a 1975 exhibition match in Osaka, and a young Tokumasu was hooked. This was his sport.
After two years learning all things rugby in Cardiff, Tokumasu has spent the last five decades dedicated to growing the sport, and importantly its culture, in his homeland.
After years coaching teams across Japan, including one school to a national championship, Tokumasu became a member of the Japan Rugby Football Union and was a driving force behind the decision to host Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan.
The success of the tournament off the field and Japan’s thrilling performances on it bring Tokumasu huge gratification – or tears of joy in the case of the win over Ireland in Shizuoka – but he knows the work is just beginning.
For Tokumasu, grassroots rugby is where the true legacy of Rugby World Cup 2019, and rugby sevens at this month’s Tokyo Olympic Games, will be most keenly felt.
In 2017, he started the Shibuya International Rugby Club, a close-knit community club that seeks to bring children from all backgrounds together to play rugby in the heart of Tokyo.
The club, which has doubled in size since Rugby World Cup 2019, incorporates over 200 children, boys and girls, ranging in age from four to 18.
Tokumasu’s ethos is that rugby is about community, camaraderie and building relationships. In many ways, the actual game is secondary.
“Rugby should be for everyone. We want people just to go to the park, play three on three, tag rugby… this is the most important thing for rugby to become a popular sport,” he told World Rugby.
“If it is only about serious, professional rugby then you can never grow the audience.”
The host of coaches working with Shibuya, who hail from New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Wales and the United States, share these sentiments.
“Tokumasu’s philosophy is that rugby is a game and we play games first and foremost to have fun,” said coach Will Hill, who grew up playing rugby in New Zealand.
“We are giving both kids and parents a different philosophy on how the game should be taught. We want to let them express themselves.”
“Rugby is just a game but it teaches you so much about life. Rugby is a decent analogy for life… as I have got older I realise how much it has helped me and I want to impart that on the kids.”
World Rugby’s decision to take the Rugby World Cup out of the sport’s historic heartlands and to Asia for the first time in 2019 clearly paid off on an economic and broadcast level, and proved to be a real game-changer for rugby across the world’s most populous continent.
GAME-CHANGING RUGBY WORLD CUP 2019 IS A RECORD-BREAKER >>
Through its Impact Beyond legacy programme, the tournament inspired 2.25 million new rugby participants in Asia, including 1.18 million in Japan alone.
But for Tokumasu the true indicator of success is something more intangible.
“When somebody asks me what the success of the World Cup is, I say if a typical Japanese family are talking about rugby in their living room, then that is a success,” he said.
Although he knew a little about rugby already through his father, nine-year-old Shibuya player Hiroyuki Naito said the Rugby World Cup left him wanting more.
“I was inspired to play more rugby,” he said.
“It made me want to play for my country in the Rugby World Cup, too.”
Naito’s favourite element of playing for Shibuya is the relationships he makes with the other kids.
“My team-mates are from all around the world, so we are like the Barbarians rugby team.”
The children can’t wait to see more elite level rugby on Japanese soil at the Tokyo Olympic Games.
“I am definitely excited as some of the teams have improved massively, like Japan,” said 13-year-old Kirren Hollow.
“It will also be very interesting to see all the amazing plays.”
Tokumasu hopes the Olympic exposure for rugby sevens will see more girls signing up to play grassroots rugby. Currently there are 30 girls playing with Shibuya.
“For girls, in the Olympics there is women’s competition and they play as equals,” he said.
“Since rugby sevens has been in the Olympics, many more girls have started to play rugby, including tag rugby, because it is an Olympic sport.”
Rugby sevens is expected to be one of the most highly anticipated events of the Tokyo Games, following the outstanding success of Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan, which captured the nation’s imagination with record-breaking broadcast audiences and huge numbers of new rugby fans across Japan and Asia.
The men’s competition will take place from 26-28 July, with the women’s tournament following on 29-31 July and its gold medal match happening on ‘Super Saturday’. All the action will take place at Tokyo Stadium, which was the venue for the opening match of Rugby World Cup 2019.