World Cup boss tips Japan to shine
WORLD CUP SPOTLIGHT: A fairytale run to the 2019 World Cup quarterfinals by hosts Japan would give a massive lift to a "ground-breaking" tournament, the country's organising chief told AFP.
The plucky Japanese won three matches two years ago under current England coach Eddie Jones, including an astonishing 34-32 victory over two-time world champions South Africa, but failed to reach the knockout stage.
And organising committee CEO Akira Shimazu tipped the Brave Blossoms to make another splash when rugby's showcase competition comes to Asia for the first time.
"Obviously it's extremely important for Japan, as hosts, to reach the knockout stage," he told AFP in an interview.
"Japan will be hoping to win three group games again. That will be their objective, although ultimately they will want to go further," added Shimazu, who admits work remains to be done before Japan is gripped by rugby fever.
"To be frank there is still a lot we need to do to boost the game's profile. To help do that, the national side has to develop further and be aiming for a quarterfinal spot."
Shimazu's bullish optimism was bolstered by a recent 23-23 draw with France in Paris.
"It was a great game, but Japan had the momentum at the end and should have won," he said, shaking his head. "Japan has to learn to win those games."
Shimazu insisted, however, that the success of the tournament would not depend on the progress of Jamie Joseph's improving Japan team, who face stiff opposition from Ireland and Scotland in Pool A. Just two teams progress from each group into the quarterfinals.
"Both the JRFU [Japan Rugby Football Union] and coach Joseph will do everything to make the knockout phase," he said.
"But as organisers we don't view that as our biggest priority. We are hoping to extend rugby's fan base across Asia and ignite a passion for the game. That's our biggest target."
Shimazu pointed to England's flop in 2015, when they became the first host nation to fail to reach the last eight.
"The English organisers did a super job," he said. "They had a record crowd of almost 90 000 for a game between Ireland and Romania. They were determined to make the tournament a success despite England going out early.
"England was a record-breaking tournament," added Shimazu. "But we plan to make the 2019 World Cup a ground-breaking one, by broadening rugby's horizons across Asia."
Shimazu's plush office overlooks the construction site of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic stadium - a nagging irritant after its bungled rollout by Olympic organisers meant the venue would no longer stage the Final of the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
"I can't say that didn't have an impact," he said. "It was a real shock but it shouldn't affect Japan's performances - we trust them to show their quality."
The final will instead now be held at the 72 000-seater Yokohama International Stadium, host of the 2002 football World Cup Final.
Shimazu also tipped England as a team to watch, thanks largely to the presence of Australian coach Jones.
"Japanese fans will have huge expectations of Eddie Jones because of what he accomplished here," he said. "They'll be excited to see how far he can take England."
On the operational front, Shimazu promised that Japan's World Cup preparations were on schedule after a warning from tournament Director Alan Gilpin to speed things up.
Of particular concern to Gilpin was a lack of progress in the selection of training venues, an issue Shimazu insists will be solved by next spring.
"The venues will be decided by April," said Shimazu, who hosts a tournament review next week.
"We are at an important stage in our preparations, but we will work to make sure all 48 games at all 12 venues are sold out."