2019 Rugby World Cup – Opportunities and Challenges for Japan

Written by Sam
February 25, 2016

Written by Sam
February 25, 2016

At a BCCJ breakfast session on 25 February 2016, Neil Snowball, Chief Operating Officer for England Rugby 2015, Head of Sport Operations at the 2012 London Olympics, shared his experiences from the Rugby World Cup (RWC) 2015 and spoke to BCCJ members and guests about the impact a large-scale global sporting event can have on local communities.

During the RWC 2015, the UK welcomed over 400,000 visitors to 13 venues across the country, supported by a network of around 6000 volunteers – 4500 from the UK’s 1400 rugby clubs, and 1500 from the general public.

The speaker opened the session by asking, “Why was the 2015 RWC in the UK declared ‘the best ever World Cup’?” Firstly, he explained, England and Wales are established rugby nations with a long tradition of the sport, and the Rugby Football Union (RFU) was committed to ensuring the team was in the best position to compete on the world stage. Secondly, their delivery team was highly experienced with extensive talent and event knowledge gained partly as a result of hosting the London Olympics in 2012.

In this sense, said Snowball, Japan faces some challenges as it is still a growing rugby nation with relatively little large-scale event experience, the last major event being the Football World Cup in 2002. Additionally, the financial footing of the Japan Rugby Football Union (JRFU) is less secure than that of the RFU in the UK. “However, the JRFU enjoys good ties with the government as well as an impressive geographical spread of venues.” 

Snowball emphasised the necessity for a solid and sustained lead up strategy which considers the long-term positive outcomes for local communities and strives to deepen the grass-roots rugby fan base across the Japan.

Lead Up & Legacy Strategy

Japan, urged Snowball, must seize every opportunity that hosting the world tournament brings. “It is truly a once in a lifetime opportunity to build a meaningful and lasting legacy for our sport in Japan.” 

The speaker gave details of the UK’s Lead Up & Legacy Strategy which was initiated in October 2012, and highlighted seven priority areas in which to invest efforts and resources. This strategy aimed to ensure that new people were brought into the game, that those who had left it were inspired to return, and those involved could enjoy the best possible experience of rugby. “Japan can learn from what worked in the UK.”

Building Capacity

The first three priority areas relating to building capacity, Snowball explained, are better facilitiesinvesting in people, and more schools. For players and members to enjoy a quality experience and stay involved with rugby, clubs need modern facilities that appeal to those in the communities around them. The RFU supported these clubs in the run up to the RWC 2015, improving playing surfaces, pitches, drainage, floodlights, and changing facilities. Additionally, after the tournament, 392 clubs in England and 45 clubs in Wales were offered equipment that was used at match venues, ranging from tables and chairs to fencing, lockers and bar furniture.

Investing in people, the speaker emphasised, means investing in qualified coaches, referees, and young volunteers in clubs. The nomination of Young Rugby Ambassadors in the UK resulted in a variety of initiatives being developed to better involve clubs and communities.

Snowball proudly announced that the RFU target of introducing 750 non-rugby-playing secondary schools to rugby union in the UK by 2015 had been achieved, with new young players of both sexes embracing the core rugby values of teamwork, respect, enjoyment, discipline and sportsmanship both on the pitch and in school life.

Increasing Participation

The speaker then elaborated on the five remaining priority areas, namely returning playerstouch rugbyother nationscultural engagement and regional activation.

“Large investment was committed by the RFU in developing and implementing creative solutions to bring back 16-24 year-old lapsed players into rugby” Snowball enthused. “Clubs, colleges and universities were engaged to offer workshops and more playing opportunities as well as reaching students with appealing social media campaings.”

The speaker then highlighted the successful promotion of touch rugby, explaining that its inclusiveness and simple rules make it accessible for all age groups and abilities. O2, Snowball explained, set up Touch Centres and Leagues, which inspired 15,000 people to take up touch rugby, ” considerably deepening the grass-roots rugby fan base across the entire nation”.

Involving other countries and consulting overseas, the speaker emphasised, is of utmost importance. The rugby family extends internationally and “collaboration ensures exchange of knowledge and the joint solution of common concerns”. The WRU had people from 21 different countries working together which Snowball says played a large part in the UK’s hosting success.

Cultural engagement, the speaker continued, refers to getting more people talking about rugby by raising its profile in local communities. This, said Snowball, can be done in various ways whether via interactive and innovative digital channels or through various creative community projects which bring rugby to life. Digital and social media promotion should start at least two years in advance, the speaker recommended. 

To add value to the national lead up and legacy work, said Snowball, a regional dimension must be encouraged. The speaker elaborated with examples such as the domestic Trophy Tour (very popular for selfies) and the Festival of Rugby which included a whole range of events from bake-offs to car boot sales to club gatherings. 

Snowball admitted that concern has been voiced that Japan might view the 2019 Rugby World Cup as a test event for the 2020 Olympics and that there may be a “competition of the wallet” with regard to ticket sales. He also conceded that Japan has not hosted a major event for some time and that there is stiff competition for resources.

However, the speaker concluded by urging Japan to draw from rugby clubs and communities, and to learn from the success of the UK. Reflecting on the opportunities and excitement in the lead up to the 2019 RWC, the speaker said, “I’m envious of the people in Japan and wish them the best of luck”. 

Enthusing Japan

In the subsequent question and answer session, many interesting questions were posed by a highly motivated audience.

In response to the first question, “How do we get Japan excited?”, Snowball urged Japan to increase anticipation and awareness of rugby among the Japanese media, to hold test events (bringing rugby matches that were already scheduled and taking the teams to the designated stadiums), and to communicate strong marketing messages around ticket sales through the implementation of creative incentive campaigns. The speaker also emphasised the power of “rugby heroes” in spreading the word and popularity of rugby, naming the highly popular Japanese rugby player Goroumaru.

RWC and Business

The discussion then turned to the role the corporate sector can play in terms of both financial and non-financial contributions. Snowball referred to the dynamic awareness campaigns of Mastercard and DHL in the UK, and encouraged innovative and creative marketing and advertising from corporations in Japan to further enthuse the Japanese public who are still buzzing from their Brave Blossoms’ memorable performance at the RWC 2015. Opportunities, Snowball said, are everywhere – from hospitality to supply chain and provider services. 

In response to a question addressing the high occupancy rates of hotels in Japan and controversial legislation surrounding Air B&Bs, Snowball conceded that the UK, too, had faced some difficult challenges including public transport and venue access. “These problems must be tackled with creativity”. The speaker spoke of a huge drive involving lobbying, conversations with legislators, and great efforts to increase the transport budget. Snowball encouraged similar steps to be taken in Japan.

Local Tourism

In reference to a question about the promotion of local tourism and the geographical spread of venues, Snowball highlighted the important role of the cities in encouraging visitors to their areas, giving the example of the mantra of UK cities in the run up to the 2015 RWC, namely, “Come to the match, but arrive a day early and leave a day after” and the “Follow Your Team” promotion. Such campaigns resulted in people from 149 countries visiting cities and locations in the UK. “Economic impact studies are also highly significant – the figures can be staggering and the cities need to get behind those numbers.”

The massive contribution made by volunteers, Snowball continued, should not be underestimated. Volunteers from overseas can be incredibly valuable in terms of language skills, others serve as guides, drivers, support the accreditation services, and help with logistics. “Volunteers do what they do for love – they must be looked after and kept fully engaged”. 


Snowball concluded the session with two key messages:

Firstly, Japan needs experienced people with expert knowledge in hosting and implementing major events and secondly, the nation must have a clear vision of what they want from the 2019 Rugby World Cup. “You can never be confident about the future, only optimistic”, said Snowball, adding “confidence only comes from doing it”.

The speaker expressed the UK’s committment to supporting Japan. He encourages Tokyo to seize every opportunity the 2019 RWC will bring, to rise to the challenges, and to leave a positive legacy for Japan’s young people and local communities.