Rugby: Hopes high as Japan prepares to fly the flag for Asia

Rugby: Hopes high as Japan prepares to fly the flag for Asia
Japan Brave Blossoms player, Shoji Ito, is tackled by Alexander Harris, representing Hong Kong, during an international match in Tokyo on May 2.
PHOTO: Reuters

SEOUL - On Sept. 19 in Brighton, England, Japan will open its 2015 Rugby World Cup campaign against the mighty South Africans - potential winners of the tournament. If the Brave Blossoms can win that or subsequent first round games against Scotland, Samoa or the United States, it would give the sport a huge boost across Asia. In the long term though, Japan needs stronger competition from within Asia to help it match the global rugby elite on a regular basis.

Japan has been Asia's No. 1 rugby nation for decades, and is the only representative the continent has ever sent to the World Cup, staged every four years since 1987. Japan is improving fast -- in 2013 in Tokyo the team defeated Wales, one of the top European national sides, for the first time in its history. Irrespective of its results in England, Japan will host the next World Cup in 2019.

Yet much is riding on the upcoming tournament. A good performance by Japan would go a long way towards raising Asia's low profile in the world game, which contrasts sharply with the success of rugby playing South Pacific nations. Australia and New Zealand are among the giants of the sport, while Fiji, Samoa and Tonga are all World Cup regulars.

Trevor Gregory is the chairman of Asia Rugby, the continent's governing body founded in 1968, which now has 31 member unions, as rugby's national governing bodies are known. He acknowledges that success for Japan is the best hope of further expanding the sport in Asia, and that more needs to be done to help the Brave Blossoms become more competitive on the international stage.

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