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Red Sparks Prop Masahiro Hibino discusses the Japanese Rugby World Cup, improving the Japanese rugby culture and recovery from the 2011 earthquake

When the Rugby World Cup makes its way to Japan in late 2019, it will be the first time it has been organised in an Asian country.

The previous hosts — Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and France — are all well-established rugby nations. They compete against one another internationally at tournaments such as the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship, while domestic clubs battle in Super Rugby and the Champions Cup.

In other words, why are Japan hosting the next World Cup?

Since Japan have not been at the forefront of world rugby, many players and fans will not know what to expect when they arrive to support their countries.  The climate, the venues and the stadiums are all foreign, but they could play a deciding role in the outcome of the World Cup.

Masahiro Hibino — a prop for the Coca-Cola Red Sparks of the Japan Top League — shared his views.

Not just hot, but humid

‘Teammates from New Zealand complain about the humidity here in Japan. They say that it’s not just hot, but the humidity is the problem,” Hibino told the Sports Gazette in an exclusive interview.

“I think if they cannot get used to it quickly, it should be difficult for them to play as usual. Team camps must be designed well.”

The Japanese weather may play a crucial role at the World Cup, especially in the early stages, as the players will need time to adapt to the humid conditions.

Japan’s Meteorological Agency’s statistics show that the average ratio of humidity in Tokyo was 86% and 74% in September and October of 2018, respectively. And the temperature could go above 30℃ in both months.

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Japan consists of four main islands. Although Japan is fairly narrow throughout, the country is quite long which means the weather will fluctuate from north to south, depending on where you find yourself.

Up north in Sapporo, there is light snow at the end of October, while down south in Oita, the temperatures are around 20℃ in November.

Both cities have been designated as a venue for the World Cup. England play their first match in Sapporo, for instance, but they could play their quarter-final in Oita if they win their group.

“I never play at Sapporo Stadium”

Some of the stadiums selected for the World Cup are almost never used for rugby matches. The fact of the matter is that rugby is not popular in Japan yet, despite the incredible upset of the 2015 World Cup wherein they beat two-time champions South Africa 34-32.

Therefore, many stadiums will not be able to accommodate the big rugby nations as they simply don’t have the capacity. Instead, big matches, such as New Zealand vs South Africa and England vs France, will need to be played in stadiums usually reserved for football and baseball.

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“I’ve never played in some of the stadiums,’ Hibino admitted. “Because some of them are not usually for rugby, I cannot tell the size of the in-goal areas right now. I think it might affect tactics, so let’s see.

“The stadium in Kamaishi city is brand new because the previous stadium in the city was washed away by the tsunami caused by the Tohoku earthquake in 2011.

“Rugby is very famous in Kamaishi in the first place and people there love rugby very much. I feel welcomed every time I go and play there. I hope we can show our recovery from the disaster.”

The ‘Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium’ can play a symbolic role in the recovery. However, the role should extend beyond the symbolic. Without consistent use, it risks being forgotten. It is important to garner both international and domestic attention to ensure the recovery continues.

“Keep fans interested in rugby”

In order to assess the Japanese public’s awareness of the World Cup, multiple surveys have been conducted in the past few years.

The latest — in September 2018 — revealed that more than two thirds of Japanese people knew the World Cup is coming, jumping from 56.3% to 68.3% in nine months.

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But Hibino lamented what the impact could have been. The number of spectators has only increased sightly through the years, he explained.

“When it comes to the national team, it’s been getting attention lately and a lot of people go and watch them play. But this World Cup fever only adds a little value to the Japan Top League,” he said.

When Japan beat South Africa in the previous World Cup, more fans showed up to Top League games temporarily, but they have since faded away.

Hibino thinks that the key is to keep “non-hardcore fans” interested in rugby and he hopes that hosting the World Cup will be helpful in doing so.

He concluded: “At least people are now getting interested in rugby, which is nice. I feel there will be lots of spectators, giving players good feeling.”

Featured photograph/Masahiro Hibino

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