Japan's rugby team bank on business of winning

Tokyo (AFP) - Japan's stunning success at last year's Rugby World Cup could prove a double-edged sword as they look to kick on from their hat-trick of pool victories in England.

A jaw-dropping upset over South Africa put the perennial flops firmly on the map, but the challenge now will be to build a solid fan base at home -- where the sport has struggled to compete with baseball and football -- as Japan gears up to host the 2019 tournament.

After narrowly missing out on a place in the World Cup quarter-finals under Australian Eddie Jones, the chairman of the Japan Rugby Football Union, Noriyuki Sakamoto, said this week: "We finally opened the door to the world, and the target for 2019 must be to reach the last eight or even the semi-finals."

To even contemplate such lofty ambitions, however, Japan must approach the sport like a business and the national side must continue their upward curve to maintain public enthusiasm, which spiked after the World Cup, according to Munehiko Harada, professor of sports management at Waseda University.

"Another peak in rugby's popularity will come in 2019," Harada said. "The question is can it continue after that?"

"The Japanese rugby community must use marketing strategies to deepen the relationship between the sport and its fans," he added.

"Give value and a sense of satisfaction to those who come to stadiums. Use the knowledge of sports business. Use experts in selling tickets."

Japan's sensational 34-32 World Cup victory over two-time champions South Africa in England sent shockwaves through world rugby and was by far the biggest upset in the tournament's history, winning legions of new fans watching bleary-eyed on television back home.

Sweet as it tasted, Japan's success was a long time coming -- it was only their second ever victory after beating minnows Zimbabwe in 1991.

Jones, who has since taken up the England job and been replaced as 'Brave Blossoms' coach by New Zealander Jamie Joseph, insisted that Japan must look to the future, saying after the World Cup: "Like any success story, the next chapter is so important."

Japan has no professional rugby league in the true sense, but its Top League comprises 16 corporate-sponsored teams, a mix of professionals and amateurs employed by the sponsoring businesses.

- Low-pulse sport -

Rugby has long been a low-pulse sport in a country where baseball and football rule the roost, although it enjoyed popularity in the 1960s through the early 1990s at college level, when games regularly drew 50,000 spectators and many teenage television drama series centred around school rugby teams.

However, the globalisation of rugby since the 1990s revealed Japan's shortcomings and led to disillusion among fans.

Nationwide participation in rugby peaked at 167,000 in 1994 but a record 145-17 loss to the All Blacks at the 1995 World Cup burst the sport's bubble.

Currently spectator figures at all levels of the game -- from high school to Top League -- are increasing though many new fans know little about the sport.

On a recent Sunday, 16,669 spectators watched the final of the annual college rugby tournament in Tokyo, Teikyo University capturing the title for a seventh straight year.

The size of the crowd at the 25,000-capacity Chichibunomiya Rugby Stadium was up from 12,107 the previous year and for new fans, a stadium announcer provided explanations of calls made by the referee.

Kiyoshi Arai, 54, who was only attending his second rugby match, admitted that he didn't fully understand what was going on but still sounded enthralled.

"It's just as exciting or possibly more so than a soccer game," he beamed.

Veteran fans hoped the current wave of rugby fever would entice more talent to the national squad.

"The more attention given to the national squad, the better they will become," said Yoshihiro Tsutsui, a 44-year-old college rugby enthusiast.

A key to rugby's growth in Japan, at least in the immediate future, could hinge on home friendlies with Scotland in June, suggested Harada. Japan lost 45-10 to Scotland at the World Cup.

"This will be revenge time," said Harada. "If Japan does well, it could feed the current excitement. But an embarrassing defeat might turn people off. Fans are fickle and they would leave again."

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