By Rob Cole
The greatest rugby show on earth kicks-off in Tokyo today and, if you were a gambling man, you’d surely predict it is going to be the biggest and best of all the editions of Rugby World Cup.
It is the first outside one of the major rugby nations, has more real candidates to win it than in many years, and has already been enthusiastically adopted by the Japanese nation.
When you get 15,000 strangers singing your own national anthem back to you in your native tongue – as the Japanese fans did to the Welsh team at training earlier in the week – you know something special is about to take place.
The pioneers at the inaugural competition in 1987 helped to generate a £1.5m profit, attract 600,000 fans through the turnstiles and had 300 million people in 17 countries watching on TV.
Compare that to the £266m invested into the game by World Rugby between 2016 and 2019 as a result of the last tournament.
They now count the TV audience in much bigger numbers and Japan 2019 will reach the biggest broadcast rugby audience in history with the action being beamed into more than 800 million households in 217 territories, surpassing the 683 million homes record in 2015.
The charity initiative alone for the 2019 tournament – ChildFund Pass It Back – will surpass the tournament profit made 32 years ago, with £2m pledged by the rugby family.
In a very short time the Rugby World Cup has firmly established itself as the third biggest sporting property in the world after the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games.
There will be a strong Welsh presence at the opening game between host nation Japan and Russia in Tokyo.
Nigel Owens will pick up where he left off in the last tournament, when he controlled the final between New Zealand and Australia, by refereeing the first match of the 2019 competition, and the Russians will be coached by Lyn Jones.
Jones, the former Neath, Ospreys, London Welsh and Dragons coach, admits the prospect of kicking-off the tournament is “both scary and exciting.”
Defeats to Italy, Connacht and Jersey in their warm-up games show the size of the task facing them.
But they fought hard to get to Japan – when Romania, Spain and Belgium were docked points for fielding ineligible players in European World Cup qualification, the Russians crept in – and Jones wants his players to make the most of their opportunity.
“I’ve just explained to the players there’s nothing we can do to help them prepare for this first game. It’s just about the experience and playing with no fear whatsoever,” said Jones.
“Just get out there and express yourself. If you play really hard and chase really hard it’s amazing what you can achieve.”
“But let me be frank, we have a 20 per cent chance in this game. Japan are favourites, but that’s just on paper.
“We appreciate the way Japan play – they are very fast and nobody makes mistakes – but we also want to do well and enjoy ourselves.”
Russia are ranked 20th in World Rugby’s rankings and are playing in the tournament for the second time after losing all four group games in New Zealand eight years ago.
Their eclectic squad includes a tighthead prop, Kiril Gotovtsev, who competed as a wrestler and in bobsleigh before, aged 26, he reapplied his raw strength to the front row.
Their captain, Vasily Artemyev, learned his rugby in Dublin, was in the Leinster Academy and then went to Northampton Saints.
Adding experience, outside-half Yuri Kushnarev has already won more than 100 caps for his country.
“Once we had confirmation we were going to play in the World Cup the union put resources in straight away to get our players to a standard where we could compete and survive for longer than 50 minutes,” added Jones.
“The last 12 months have been about making the players understand what the contemporary game involves. We’re not playing at a different level, we’re playing a different sport.
“The ball is the same shape but [against tier one teams] the referee never blows his whistle and people rarely make mistakes. Whatever happens on Friday, I’m so proud of how dedicated these guys have been.
“Russian rugby reminds me a lot of where we were in Welsh rugby in 1998-99 – no academies, everyone bickering with each other and limited resources. But Wales got their act together and look where they are today.
“That’s how long the process can take. Russia have plans, they have ambition and the president has done an excellent job in trying to push the game forward in the correct manner.”