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Rugby: Japan marks year to go until RWC, announces big TV deal

The official mascots for the 2019 Rugby World Cup -- Ren, left, and G -- pose with officials of the event's organizing committee in Tokyo, on Jan. 26, 2018. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- The world of rugby began the countdown to Rugby World Cup 2019 Thursday with an all-star cast celebrating a year to go until the tournament kicks off in Tokyo when Japan plays Russia at Tokyo's Ajinomoto Stadium.

The tournament will be the first to be hosted outside one of the sport's traditional heartlands, and World Rugby Chairman Bill Beaumont said it will have a huge impact not just in Japan but across Asia.

"It will be the most impactful Rugby World Cup ever, attracting and retaining more than one million new rugby players in Asia, while changing the lives of tens of thousands of disadvantaged children in communities across Asia thanks to the generosity of fans supporting our transformational partnership with ChildFund Pass It Back," he said.

"Japan 2019 will also benefit the whole of the nation from Sapporo in the north to Kumamoto in the south, delivering rugby and sports facilities for communities to enjoy, while pumping 216.6 billion yen added value into the economy."

Earlier, it was announced that the tournament will get unparalleled television coverage in Japan with all 48 games shown on J Sports and 31 games shown live on free-to-air channels.

"The tournament here will have unprecedented free-to-air coverage for rugby and it's an opportunity to use rugby's biggest event to reach the widest possible audience," Alan Gilpin, head of Rugby World Cup Ltd., said prior to events marking one year to go.

All of the Brave Blossoms games and the final on Nov. 2, 2019, are among games included in the free-to-air package on NHK, Japan's national broadcaster, and commercial network NTV.

And World Rugby is hoping to replicate that coverage in key territories across Asia.

"Asia is such an important growth market for the sport, particularly in terms of young people, that we've got to have a broadcast strategy that supports the tournament and beyond," said Gilpin.

World Rugby Chief Executive Brett Gosper, who joined Beaumont and a number of other dignitaries in launching the year-to-go festivities, praised the efforts of the local organizing committee.

"Overall there are no major obstacles in the last 12 months," he said. "They seem to have organized themselves well and we are on schedule. It has not always been that way until now but they are in a very good position with no more risks or challenges than there would be for an organizing committee a year out."

With the ticketing process having entered its penultimate stage Wednesday -- 70 percent of tickets have already been sold via 2.5 million applications in pre-sales -- organizers said they were delighted at the response.

"The general sales ballot opened yesterday and we received over 300,000 applications," local organizing committee CEO Akira Shimazu said Thursday.

Tours from overseas have also exceeded expectations.

"Rugby World Cup 2019 is on track to be a very special and game-changing event," said Gosper. "In addition to exceptional ticketing demand, the official supporter tour and hospitality offering is exceeding all expectations and underscoring our belief that Japan is the place to be in 2019."

And Beaumont was under no illusions as to why.

"The one thing we are seeing is lots of rugby followers who would never normally think of coming to Japan are certainly now going to come here. So you will see a huge growth in the tourist numbers coming."

Previous tournaments have generally seen the same teams contest the knockout stages. But Gosper said the winning margins between Tier 1 and Tier 2 countries have decreased at every World Cup, and like his colleagues, he is hoping there could be some upsets on the cards.

"I think the U.S. are shaping up quite well," said World Rugby Vice Chairman Agustin Pichot, who led Argentina to third place at the 2007 World Cup. "And if Fiji get their act together, they could get into the quarterfinals."

And what of Japan?

"Japan goes really well in a tournament," said Pichot. "You see them at the Olympic Games, you see them (in 2015). They show up for big tournaments. Because of the complexity of Super Rugby (in which the Sunwolves have struggled), we don't know yet how the team will do. But having home advantage, they could be a contender."

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