Japan’s national team captured the imagination four years ago with a stunning win over two-time champions South Africa at the tournament in England. Organisers would love a similar result again to drive interest in a country where sumo, baseball and football are still more popular, but rugby has deep roots.
Jamie Joseph’s Japan squad face Russia to open the six-week, 20-team tournament at Tokyo Stadium, which is set to be packed for a Pool A match that at any previous World Cup would have attracted little outside attention.
Amid many changes, one thing remains the same: two-time defending champions New Zealand are slight favourites in the tightest tournament to date. South Africa, 2003 winners England and world No 1-ranked Ireland have strong claims. Six Nations winners Wales and two-time champions Australia are also in the mix. Scotland are the darkest of horses.
If you love drama, it comes very early. The All Blacks and Springboks face off tomorrow in Yokohama in the most compelling group game of the tournament – and, perhaps a dress rehearsal of the final on 2 November.
In other big games on the opening weekend, three-time finalists France take on Argentina in a Pool C game that will likely hurt the team that loses – considering England is in the same group – Australia face Fiji in Pool D and Ireland take on Scotland in Pool A.
South Africa and New Zealand have met four times at the Rugby World Cup and each have two wins – three of those decided by four points or fewer.
The last four head-to-heads between the long-time rivals in the southern hemisphere’s Rugby Championship have been decided by two points or fewer, including a 16-16 draw this season.
“Our last three matches have ended in stalemate, one win each and a draw, for an aggregate score of 82-82,” Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus said. “I think we have a healthy respect for each other’s capabilities but it will come down to a small moment to decide a big game in the end, I suppose.”
Even beyond the All Blacks contingent, there is New Zealand flavour everywhere.
Seven of the 20 head coaches are Kiwis, included’s Japan Joseph who played for the All Blacks in the 1995 World Cup before switching to play for Japan four years later. Japan’s captain, Michael Leitch, moved from New Zealand to Japan as a teenager and now probably speaks the language as well as he speaks English.
After Russia the hosts play Ireland, then Samoa, making their final Pool A match against Scotland in Yokohama on 13 October a possibly decisive contest for second place if Ireland top the pool, as their ranking suggests they should.
“I think we are near the peak,” Leitch said. “I’m sure we’ll step up each game toward the quarter-finals.”
Public interest in Japan is strong, although pressure should be moderate. Making the quarter-finals would be a giant step, though coming up short would not be a shock. When Japan and South Korea co-hosted the football World Cup in 2002, the sport’s popularity boomed in both countries and both national teams achieved well beyond their previous best performances, reaching the last 16 and semi-finals, respectively. The rugby hierarchy is aiming for a similar boost.