Land of the Rising Scrum

 Times Column 23/10/04

Something is stirring in the land of the rising scrum. At the end of May, Japan outclassed Canada to claim the IRB Super Powers Cup, inspired by 20-year-old fly-half Kyohei Morita. And this autumn, after the fifth weekend of the increasingly competitive Top League, five teams are tied one point behind front-runners Kubota Spears.  Last Saturday alone, Toutai Kefu, Jaco van der Westhuyzen, Glen Marsh and Pita Alatini could be seen in action in Tokyo, with standards rising so fast that not all of them were on the winning side.

Off the pitch, at a glitzy central Tokyo hotel, former prime minister Yoshiro Mori was introduced on Monday as the president of Japan’s 2011 Rugby World Cup candidacy committee. He talked with passion about his love for rugby, and his faith in Japan’s ability to stage a tournament at least the equal of last year’s vibrant extravaganza in Australia.

And why not? Japan is ideally placed to pioneer the World Cup beyond the well-trodden base-camps of the established Unions.  It has the infrastructure, the know-how, and is one of the safest countries on earth.  It also has 100 years of rugby tradition, and more registered players than New Zealand.

Then there’s the vision thing. Rugby’s flagship tournament can be staged in rugby’s new world, next to the planet’s largest emerging sports market. This would go a long way towards convincing sceptics that the IRB is sincere in its ambition to make rugby a truly global sport.

So on the one hand there’s an unmissable opportunity.  On the other, there’s rugby politics. The IRB, shocking though this might sound, can make mistakes. The 1999 World Cup was blighted by a corrosive ho-hum factor, with less than 10,000 people turning out to watch Scotland at Murrayfield. After this fiasco, a consensus seemed to have been reached on the desirability of single nation World Cups.  Yet for 2007, the tournament is heading for France via another proposed pool-share with Ireland, Wales, and Scotland.

Blame the system.  Until now, in selecting the host-nation, the IRB has allowed 21 votes into the pot, two each for the eight foundation Unions (the Home Nations, France, and the Tri-Nations) and one each for Italy, Argentina, Japan, Canada and FIRA (the European Association of Rugby). No-one else in the wider rugby world has a say, despite the fact that the IRB now boasts 96 member Unions from all continents.

To host the World Cup, a country needs 11 of the 21 votes. When France offered a share of their games to Wales, Scotland and Ireland, that immediately created a useful starting cushion of eight votes. Only three more to go. In this way, regardless of the sport’s wider needs, the World Cup can be broken up like an aspirin.  It’s still essentially a good thing, but less so if allowed to fizzle out piece by piece in separate national pools.

For RWC 2011, if the system remains unchanged, Japan’s fellow-contenders New Zealand and South Africa start with twice the number of definite votes – their own. Japan will therefore have to rely on a humdinger of a bid which could single-handedly establish rugby as a global sporting force in the twenty-first century.

Will this be enough? New Zealand lacks infrastructure, with doubts already voiced about the Lions tour, and where everyone’s going to sleep. As for South Africa, it’s difficult to see how rugby can benefit from tailgating the 2010 FIFA football jamboree. If there are hitches or worse in 2010, twelve months is unlikely to be long enough to put the problems right. Or if the football is a huge success, and let’s hope it will be, it’s hard to see what the smaller rugby World Cup can gain by an immediate comparison.

It’s a constant refrain of the voteless Pacific Islanders, justifiably, that the established rugby community does too little to foster and promote the sport outside its traditional strongholds. If rugby is ever to fulfil its potential, it surely needs the courage to move beyond Europe and the Empire’s sporting comfort-zones.

Rugby has many men of courage and proven leadership, some of them council members of the IRB.  Elsewhere, it’s worth listening to one of the great chiefs still taking a lead on the field. Step forward Martin Johnson, speaking last week to the Sunday Times: “Japan have bid for the World Cup. Surely, if we are serious about expanding the game, they have to have it.”