Despite the freak weather that played havoc with the schedule over the final weekend of the pool stage, the decision to host the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan has so far been a considerable boon to the global game. It is therefore unsurprising that murmurs have already began to surface about the effect that hosting the 2027 RWC in the USA could have.
Historically, the Rugby World Cup has tended to rotate on a hemisphere basis. From the inaugural tournament in New Zealand and Australia to the 2015 edition in England, the Rugby World Cup has bounced between rugby’s powerhouse northern and southern hemisphere nations, as World Rugby have played to their staunch and traditional supporter base.
That has changed somewhat this year as the tournament has gone to Japan, another northern hemisphere nation, after it was last hosted by England. The tournament will stay in the northern hemisphere in 2023, too, as it is set to be played in France. Admittedly, you could argue that Japan’s rugby is more strongly tied to the southern hemisphere than it is the northern, but it also shows a changing pattern as rugby becomes more at ease with its status as a professional and increasingly global sport.
World Rugby are, completely understandably, driven by financial incentive. Cynics can wag their finger at this and talk about the values of the game, something which should certainly not be lost, but if we, as fans, media and players, all want the game to grow, World Rugby need to have the money to support and build the game in the tier two and tier three countries. Keeping the tournament in the northern hemisphere and in some of the world’s biggest economies aligns with that goal.
With that in mind, hosting the 2027 tournament in the USA would make a lot of sense. The country has the infrastructure and economy to accommodate it and the battle to grow the game in the world’s biggest sports market is one that rugby is perpetually waging, with varying levels of success. To host the sport’s showpiece event could go a long way towards winning that battle.
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Watch: The scenes following Japan’s historic win over Scotland in Yokohama
That said, there needs to be a tempering of expectation, especially when comparing the potential rewards with those that we are currently seeing in Japan. The USA and Japan are two very different sporting nations.
Despite the size of it, the USA’s sports market is relatively saturated. You have the ‘big three’ of American football, basketball and baseball, followed up by ice hockey and the increasingly popular soccer. Rugby is a long way off breaking into that top five, and that’s before even considering the array of individual sports that thrive in the US, such as athletics, tennis and golf. Unless moved, the Rugby World Cup would also clash with the regular season of the NFL, not to mention the beginning of the NBA season and the conclusion of the MLB playoffs. In Japan, rugby is a more established team sport and although it doesn’t have the mass appeal that baseball or soccer do, it has an ability to grow and embed itself as one of the country’s most popular pastimes.
Going hand in hand with that bloated sports market, the USA also has less history of rugby than Japan and is not currently producing players of the same calibre as the pathways in Japan are. There is a strong university competition at select colleges and the Major League Rugby competition is showing promising signs in its infancy, but there is a large gap to close on Japan, if the Eagles are to start blooding players of the same ability levels as the Brave Blossoms. That ability to be competitive has been key to the Rugby World Cup being so embraced by the Japanese people.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 15, 2019
If Japan were not beating the likes of Scotland and Ireland and making it to the quarter-finals of the competition, would we be seeing viewing figures of roughly 60m for their crunch game at the end of the pool stage? Would there be the euphoric scenes in the streets of Japan as fans celebrate their team’s clean sweep of the group? Tournaments are often made by the successes of the host nation and Jamie Joseph’s side have so far delivered with aplomb.
For the USA to be able to replicate that feat in 2027 – as well as pick up a morale-boosting scalp in 2023, if to completely mirror Japan’s path – then the players that are coming through their pathway now and that are beginning to be blooded, would need to be the players who the side relies heavily on in eight years’ time, once they have built up experience in the Test arena. Earlier this year, the USA weren’t even involved in the World Rugby U20 Trophy, the second tier age-grade competition, as their place was taken by Canada, with their North American rivals having won the two-legged qualifier. Over the last eight years, Japan have always been in at least the Trophy competition, as well as three appearances in the top tier Championship.
This is not to say the US shouldn’t host the 2027 tournament, just that we cannot expect for the scenes in Japan, of an enraptured fanbase revelling in the success of their team, to be replicated. The rugby programme in the US is simply not at the level that it is in Japan currently, nor is it at the level that it was in Japan seven or eight years ago. There is plenty of scope for optimism, though if not tempered, it will only lead to disappointment.
Japan’s next steps forward should be for the national team to join a tier one tournament, for the new proposed domestic competition to come into being and for the age-grade pathway to cement themselves in the Championship, having taken the place of Scotland for the 2020 season. If the country and JRFU can achieve all of those things, Japan suddenly becomes a whole lot more self-sustainable as a tier one rugby nation and efforts at World Rugby can be switched to cracking America.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 15, 2019
There is no doubt that, even if the Eagles were to struggle in 2027, hosting the tournament would provide a big boost to the sport’s popularity. Embracing these substantial economies is the only sure-fire way for World Rugby to be able to keep funding the likes of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, nations who have given so much to the sport but who cannot realistically compete with the larger countries in terms of financing and infrastructure.
It would be disappointing for the southern hemisphere nations, particularly Argentina, who have yet to host, and South Africa, who haven’t hosted since 1995, but there is increasingly little space in professional sport for sentiment. Ultimately, it is money that dictates things and for as long as we want a global and professional sport, there doesn’t look to be much chance of that changing.
Working in those nations’ favour, however, is the fact that the USA won’t be ready to be the force that Japan currently are in 2027. That would make Argentina or South Africa appealing hosts in eight years’ time, before potentially moving the tournament to the US in 2031, a time when, touch wood, the Eagles would be able to be competitive at a higher level.
Let’s hope that the legacy of this year’s tournament in Japan is one of significant growth in popularity and participation in the country, freeing up World Rugby to focus its resources elsewhere, such as a long-term plan to help the USA get up to similar level.
Watch: New Japanese club competition planned post-Rugby World Cup
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