Yokohama (Japan) – Rugby, a recent sport in Japan? Rather the opposite: there are more than 150 years, matches were already a few kilometers from the stadium of Yokohama, where will take place the final of the World Cup on November 2.
It all began in the early 1860s, when British troops landed in Yokohama to protect British nationals after the assassination of one of them, a merchant of his state, by Samurai warriors.
But the tensions subsided and the officers of the expeditionary corps soon found themselves idle. They then started making oval ball games to pass the time.
The first mention of a match in Japan goes back to 1863, just 40 years after William Webb Ellis, a student of the prestigious English Rugby School, laid the modern foundations of the sport.
"In December 1864, there is evidence that (British officers, Ed) were playing every afternoon, with some civilians", AFP explains the British historian Mike Galbraith, a specialist in the origins of rugby in Japan.
– One of the oldest clubs in the world –
At the beginning of 1866, about forty of these first players founded theYokohama Foot Ball ClubIn an editorial reporting this news, the Japan Times at the time was delighted to see among these founders "two or three"Graduates of Rugby and Winchester schools, which promised according to the newspaper an excellent level of play.
According to Mr. Galbraith, this would be one of the oldest rugby associations in the world, at least in the category of those open to all, unlike clubs closed schools or universities.
Rugby was more firmly anchored in Japan at the turn of the 20th century, when two Cambridge alumni, Edward Bramwell Clarke and Japan's Ginnosuke Tanaka, introduced the sport to Keio University in Tokyo.
Its popularity subsequently rose rapidly in the country: the Japanese rugby union was created in 1926 and in the early 1930s, some matches drew 20,000 spectators, according to Mr. Galbraith.
While rugby is as passionate about Japanese crowds as other team sports such as baseball and football, the national team has participated in all editions of the World since the creation of the competition in 1987.
– A weak national championship –
In World Cup, the "Brave Blossoms"(the valiant flowers) alternated the worst – a humiliating 145-17 loss to New Zealand in 1995 – and the best: a resounding victory over South Africa in 2015 (34-32).
A recent winner of the Pacific Nations Cup, Japan is currently ranked ninth in the World Rugby standings. This is his best ranking so far, which he had already achieved in 2016.
The Japanese organizers hope that the 2019 World Cup, the first held in Asia, will boost the development of rugby in Japan and elsewhere in the region.
However, the desperately low attendance of the Top League matches, the Japanese championship, as well as its poor level of play do not encourage optimism.
Another blow: lack of convincing results, the Sunwolves of Tokyo, the only Japanese Super Rugby team, will have to leave at the end of the 2020 season this international league also gathering teams from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina.
When the Yokohama amateur club where it all started, it still exists, but vegetates a bit. "The current situation is not very good"sighs Mr. Galbraith, himself a former club player.
A shortage of members from the big rugby nations has badly affected the club, according to him: "It's harder to form a first team of 15 players".