SHIZUOKA – Ireland rugby fans attending their country’s test match against Japan in Shizuoka on Saturday were confident that supporters around the Asia-Pacific region will help make the 2019 World Cup an international festival.
“I’d say every Irish person that lives within flying distance will come,” said Tokyo resident Gavin Duffy, who traveled to the match at Ecopa Stadium with fellow members of the Japan Gaelic Athletic Association.
“I’d say they’ll come from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Shanghai, Beijing — they’ll come from all around the Asia area, even Australia.”
Japan will attempt to follow in the footsteps of a record-breaking 2015 Rugby World Cup in England when it becomes the first Asian country to host the event in two years’ time.
Over 2.47 million match tickets were sold for the 2015 tournament, in addition to an official “fanzone” attendance of more than a million. Japan’s chances of attaining similar attendance figures will depend greatly on its ability to attract overseas fans to the six-week competition, which will be held in 12 venues around the country.
But Tokyo-based Ireland fan Paul Jones believes that many supporters will see it as too good an an opportunity to pass up.
“I think fans will come from everywhere for this tournament because Japan is not a country you are going to come to so often,” he said. “You can go to the games and then do your sightseeing. I think it’s a good chance to kill two birds with one stone.”
The pockets of Ireland fans wearing green and drinking beer in the afternoon sun outside Ecopa Stadium made Saturday’s game a colorful event, with many coming from far and wide to enjoy the match.
One group of 11 friends used the occasion to hold a reunion, traveling from Canada, Australia, the United Arab Emirates and Ireland to meet up for their first-ever trip to Japan.
“We just said, ‘Where’s a good spot for a bit of craic?’ And someone said Japan,” said Keiron Archibald, from Dublin.
“The people are really welcoming and they know how to put on a show, clearly. It’s very easy to get everywhere. They’re all absolutely lovely. And they seem to get behind us at rugby as well. I’ve seen a few people walking around wearing green.”
Ireland won the match 50-22 in front of a crowd of 27,381 at Ecopa Stadium, and will now travel to Tokyo to face Japan again at Ajinomoto Stadium next Saturday. Both venues will host games at the World Cup.
“I thought the stadium was absolutely fantastic and Shizuoka turned on a real show for us,” said Japan head coach Jamie Joseph. “And we let them down.
“What we’ve got to realize as a team is that we can employ the fans to support us by the way we play rugby. And if we can do that by creating pressure and scoring points early in the match, then we’re going to have 27,000 people cheering for us. Conversely, if we get off to a bad start it works against us because it puts a lot of pressure on the team.”
Several of the world’s top teams have signed up to play test matches in Japan ahead of the World Cup, with Australia set to face the Brave Blossoms in Yokohama in November and world champion New Zealand scheduled to play here next year.
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt was happy to experience playing a game in Japan before his team faces the host nation, Scotland and two sides yet to qualify in Pool A in 2019.
“I love the food here,” said Schmidt. “The sashimi and the sushi have been well consumed.
“We have had fantastic liaison officers supplied by the Japan Rugby Football Association, who have looked after us really well. We took a coaching clinic yesterday with 70 incredibly enthusiastic young Japanese rugby players, and I think the coaching staff and the players who took the clinic really enjoyed the experience. It’s been fantastic so far.”
Ireland’s soccer team qualified for the 2002 soccer World Cup and played games in Niigata, Kashima and Yokohama before losing to Spain in the second round in Suwon, South Korea.
“I would say that rugby fans have more money than soccer fans but soccer fans are more committed,” said Ireland fan Duffy. “If Ireland were playing in Macedonia, you would find hundreds of Irish fans there.
“For the World Cup, who knows? In 2002, 7,000 Irish came for the football World Cup. I don’t think you’ll get that number for 2019. Definitely soccer fans would pay more money. But rugby fans have more money.”