The road to the Webb Ellis Cup
With Rugby World Cup 2019TM, Japan kicking off between the hosts Japan and Russia on 20 September, we bring you a series of articles designed to get you ready for the most anticipated sports event of the year.
At just over three decades old Rugby World CupTM (RWC) is a relative newcomer on the international sporting stage but it’s become one of the most-watched sporting events on the planet. Rugby is a sport filled with physicality, passion and drama and requires a unique combination of brains and brawn in order to succeed.
A UNIQUE PROPOSITION
There is something special about this year’s tournament, taking place across 12 host cities in Japan. Perhaps it’s because this is the first time the event is being hosted in Asia (and first outside the sport’s traditional powerhouses to host the tournament), and with that comes a sense of unpredictability. There is no precedence, just the expectation of thrilling rugby action ahead, in one of the most culturally unique countries on the planet. Excitement is already building in Japan and residents are getting behind their team. The opening match between the hosts and Russia on 20 September is anticipated to smash the domestic broadcast audience record of 28 million. Elsewhere, fans from around the world are planning their trips so they can support their countrymen and be a part of a historic occasion.
The Japanese concepts of Omotenashi and Omatsuri are hugely important in Japanese culture and both are set to define the very essence of Rugby World Cup 2019TM. Omotenashi is the Japanese spirit of hospitality in which visitors are offered the very best welcome possible, and Omatsuri is the Japanese word for festival.
THROUGH THE AGES
To fully understand what’s s at stake for the 20 nations competing at this year’s tournament, let’s recap what’s gone before.
The inaugural event took place in New Zealand and Australia: 16 nations, 32 matches, one small gold Trophy: the Webb Ellis Cup – named after William Webb Ellis, the Englishman credited with inventing the match when he picked up the ball and ran with it during football (soccer) at Rugby School, England in 1823. New Zealand prevailed, overpowering France in the Final.
The RWC arrives in the northern hemisphere and is jointly hosted by England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and France. The one-sided encounters of the last tournament were replaced by the emergence of teams including Western Samoa and Canada (making it to the quarter-finals at the expense of Wales and Argentina), and things started to get interesting. The global TV audience jumped from approximately 300 million in 1987 to 1.4 billion in 1991. Australia ran out 12-6 winners against England in the Twickenham final.
Following the end of apartheid, RWC 1995 was the first to feature the mighty South Africa. Rugby can be a powerful tool and never has this been more evident than at this RWC where the hosts fought with passion and poise under the slogan ‘One Team, One Nation’. South Africa reached the final against New Zealand where President Nelson Mandela famously took to the pitch the country’s iconic green jersey as a way of uniting his country. South Africa won with a drop goal in extra time and as Mandela handed over the trophy on his home turf, Ellis Park reverberated to the thundering roar of “Nel-son! Nel-son! Nel-son!”A significant milestone for the tournament and a poignant moment for a country.
The fourth RWC was the first to be played in the professional era and reflecting its growing global appeal and new status, the tournament expanded from 16 to 20 teams. Hosted by Wales with matches being played at stadiums across the UK and France, New Zealand were odds on favourites to secure the title once more, until France performed the most remarkable and unexpected recovery, overturning a 24-10 deficit in the semi-final to beat New Zealand43-31. Australia rolled over the Frenchmen in the Final, winning 35-12.
England went into RWC 2003 in Australia as favourites for the first time after securing some impressive results in the lead-up. Cohesion and fierce team spirit roused a team that had previously never quite delivered in other RWCs. The final against hosts Australia included high drama and frayed nerves, but England’s winning points were kicked by Jonny Wilkinson with just 26 seconds of extra-time remaining, securing a deserved and historic 20-17 victory. This was the first northern hemisphere team to raise the Webb Ellis Cup, breaking the stranglehold held between South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
RWC officially piqued global interest by the sixth edition in France, with a record of more than four billion viewers tuning in to watch the 48 matches. France knocked out New Zealand yet again - this time in the quarter-finals, highlighting the Kiwi’s lack of success away from their homeland. Holders England surpassed expectations by again reaching the final but were beaten by South Africa 15-6 in the final in the Stade de France in Paris.
Tragedy rocked the host nation and favourites New Zealand in the run-up to the 2011 tournament, as earthquakes struck its second-largest city, Christchurch, claiming 185 lives in the process. The nation came together to rebuild their city and host one epic tournament in the face of adversity. Passion ran high throughout but in the end, the hosts came good (just) in the final against France winning narrowly 8-7. Finally, their long wait for another Rugby World CupTM was over.
England, the home of rugby, hosted a highly anticipated RWC in 2015. Unlike other instalments, England is home to a global community so every team had a solid fan base even without travelling support - consequently, the atmosphere at almost every match was electric. Having grown with every tournament, RWC 2015 was hailed as a record-breaker even before it started as 2.47 million tickets were sold for the 48 matches, representing 98% of capacity at 13 venues across England and Wales. Social media played a massive part, garnering an international following and a new way for people to be part of the action from anywhere in the world. For the first time in RWC history, the hosts were knocked out before the knockout stages, but perhaps the biggest upset came from a small stadium on England’s south coast. Tournament outsiders, Japan, came of age by beating South Africa in adrenaline fueled match that had everyone on the edge of their seat - regardless of their nationality. It was a real David and Goliath affair. But New Zealand set the record straight in the final and convincingly took the title away from home.
A LOOK AHEAD
Japan hosting this RWC is particularly poignant as it represents a shift in the sport’s status quo, while also showcasing the best of Asian culture and hospitality to the rest of the world. The stage is set beautifully for a highly competitive, action-packed tournament. Never before have so many teams been in with a shout of taking home the title! Inspired by their loyal fans and home advantage, Japan will undoubtedly bring their A-game in a bid to make it past the pool matches and beyond for the first time. Australia, France and South Africa, three teams that haven’t been winning as consistently as they’re used to over the last couple of seasons, have a strong RWC pedigree and should not be written off. England will be looking to make amends after their disappointing performance in 2015 while Wales and Ireland enter the tournament in their highest ever ranking positions (2nd and 3rd respectively), adding a weight of expectation they haven’t experienced before. Of course, the ever dominant New Zealand, the #1 ranked team in the world, will be favourites to make it three titles in a row.
JOIN THE JOURNEY
You don’t need to be a player or even watched rugby previously to be able to enjoy RWC 2019 in Japan. The unique spirit of the match is unquestionable and this will be on show to the world when the tournament starts on 20 September at Tokyo Stadium. Being the first RWC to be hosted in Asia, this instalment is considered to be very important to the growth of rugby and will go along way to attract new spectators and young players. From the yakitori and sushi bars to the onsens and bullet train stations across Japan, rugby fever to hit a nation and we can’t wait to watch the action unfold.