Rugby is not an Asian game. Among all countries of the continent, it is only in Japan the game had gained some extent of popularity in the past, which too had largely been overshadowed by the increasing popularity of football since 1990s. As a result, when Japan was chosen as the host nation for 2019 Rugby World Cup, the decision came to the surprise of most other nations where the popularity of the game by far supersedes many other sporting events.
It is not only that Japan did not have a professional rugby league attracting enough audience needed for generating revenue for its sustenance; the country hardly had any rugby stadium big enough for accommodating audience expected in World Cup games. Rugby in Japan continued to be played as a game within a limited circle, supported mostly by corporate sponsorship, as well as a game played at university level tournaments. Despite such odds, the rugby world body, in the process of selecting the host nation for the World Cup, decided to go for Japan with the hope that arranging the tournament in the country might help spreading the game throughout the continent with almost half of world population and also help revive rugby’s lost popularity in Japan. Besides, the lack of rugby stadium was compensated by the proposal of turning the existing football stadiums into makeshift rugby venues. The proposal was seen as wise and timely since Japan has quite a significant number of football stadiums of world class qualities, many of which were built in late 1990s and early 2000 as the country co-hosted World Cup football in 2002.The effort largely paid off as Rugby World Cup 2019 has not only generated renewed interest for the sports in Japan only, but in some other neighboring countries as well. The superb performance of the Japanese national team in the competition definitely served as an added stimulation.
The 44-day event that came to an end with the final played at the Yokohama International Stadium on November 2 has by now been seen by many around the world as a record breaking Rugby World Cup on many counts. A grand total of 1.84 million tickets sold throughout the competition is a new record for Rugby World Cup. The final played at Yokohama also saw a record breaking 70,103 spectators and the economic impact of hosting the competition too has set a new milestone. For Japan the impact has been estimated to be more than 430 billion yen. As a result, Japan has also become an eventual winner of Rugby World Cup 2019 despite not lifting the Webb Ellis Cup in the final like that of South Africa.
South Africa’s success in the competition is another story of glorious achievement of a team that few gave serious consideration at the start of the tournament. The team lost to New Zealand in its opening game. However, since then had shown continued improvement culminating into the superb performance in the final against England, the team many thought as the obvious winner after its demolition of New Zealand in the semi-final.
The team South Africa represented this time a true rainbow combination that Nelson Mandela dreamed about back in 1995 when the country won its first Rugby World Cup. 24-year ago when team captain Francois Pienaar lifted the trophy after receiving it from Nelson Mandela, the moment signaled the birth of South Africa’s rainbow nation, a dream that Mandela carefully nurtured for bridging the racial gap after long years of apartheid rule. Mandela arrived at the stadium wearing the same no.6 green jersey of the captain, despite the fact that the team at the time was all white and did not have a single colored member. It was right after the end of segregation, a system that kept black South Africans out of anything seen as privileged and playing rugby was a privilege of the whites. With the end of apartheid Mandela did not want to overturn the situation outright and opted for a policy that gradually opened the door for those until then were deprived and neglected. After 24 years the new South African rugby team has shown what a true visionary Mandela had been.
In the final match against England at Yokohama National Stadium on November 2, the South African team that came to the field was a team of Mandela’s dream, a true mixture of races and colors keeping harmony and understanding that allowed the players to dominate over the powerful rival. The final moment of this glorious achievement culminated with the Captain Siya Kolisi rising the Webb Ellis Cup wearing the same number 6 jersey that Pienaar had back in 1995. Kolisi is a not only the first black captain of South African rugby team, he also represents an inspiring new symbol of South African unity. A black boy born just one day before the repeal of apartheid was standing proud side by side with his white and colored team mates.
In 2007 when South Africa defeated England in the final of the World Cup in Paris to lift the title for the second time, Kolisi had to watch the game in a township tavern in Eastern Cape as he had no television at home. Praising the team captain of his perseverance and devotion, South African coach Rassie Erasmus recalled that there was a stage when Siya did not have food to eat and from that situation he had emerged as the captain who led South Africa to hold the cup.
And after receiving the cup Kolisi made an eloquent speech by saying that what the team had done was to show to the people back at home that they really could achieve something if they could pull together. Stressing on the importance of unity and harmony, Kolisi did not forget his neglected childhood as he said, “we appreciate all the support – people in the taverns, in the shanty towns, farms, homeless people and people in the rural areas. Thank you so much… we love South Africa and we can achieve anything if we work together as one.”
South Africa is going through a difficult time and though the inspiration will not work out as a magic solution, many expect it might at least show once again the need for standing together against all those odds that are pulling the nation behind.
(Tokyo November 4, 2019)