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Rugby's popularity surge fuels attendance spike at national high school tourney

Spectators fill the stands at a 95th All Japan High School Rugby Tournament semifinal match, on Jan. 7, 2016, in Higashiosaka, Osaka Prefecture. (Mainichi)

High school rugby in Japan appears more popular than ever, with total attendance at the ongoing 95th All Japan High School Rugby Tournament in Higashiosaka, Osaka Prefecture, hitting a record high of 113,625 as of the semifinal matches on Jan. 7.

    The high turnout is very likely due to the good weather during the tournament and, perhaps more importantly, to rugby's enhanced popularity in the wake of the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

    The previous high was set in the 93rd tournament -- at 109,434 -- and the current edition isn't over yet. Meanwhile, four more teams participated in the tournament than usual, for a total of 55. That means there were four more games than in most years, but the number of days was the same as always (tickets are for an entire day, not for individual games). A total of 8,272 people turned out for the high school semifinal matches, topping the previous year's total by about 1,200.

    The tournament began on Dec. 27 last year, and hit a single-day attendance high of 26,915 on Dec. 30, for the second round of matches. That day, spectators were even seated on the track around the No. 3 pitch, where six teams from the Kinki region played.

    The quarterfinal matches -- featuring five Kinki region teams -- were played on Jan. 3, drawing 23,780 fans. It was an unseasonably warm 16.3 degrees Celsius and sunny that day, and fans filled even the area behind the goal, where there are no actual seats.

    "I think rugby's current popularity has had a major effect," said tournament organizing committee chairman Hiroyuki Amano. "There are a lot of women and children (at the tournament), so I get the impression that there are a lot of people here that had no previous interest in rugby."

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