The first Rugby World Cup to be staged in Asia kicks off on Friday in Tokyo, as the game seeks to broaden its global reach beyond its traditional European and southern hemisphere heartlands. The tournament will be held from 20 September to 2 November and 20 countries will fight for the trophy.
Japan's national team caught attention four years ago by upsetting two-time champion South Africa in the Rugby World Cup in England. Organisers would love a similar result again to drive interest in a country where baseball and soccer are still more popular.
Jamie Joseph's Japan squad face 20th-ranked Russia to open the six-week, 20-team tournament on Friday at Tokyo Stadium, which is set to be packed for a Pool A match that at any previous World Cup would have attracted little outside attention.
Organisers also hoping the tournament will be close to a complete sell-out and a staggering 15,000 fans turning out on a public holiday just to watch Wales train.
World Rugby Chairman Bill Beaumont said they had awarded the tournament to Japan in the hope it would be "a powerful game-changer for sporting and social change in Asia, the world's most populous and youthful continent."
Teams and format
A total of 20 teams have qualified for the mega event. The countries are divided into four pools and each team plays one match against each of the other teams in the same pool. For a win, teams will be awarded four points, two for a draw and none for a defeat by eight or more points. A team scoring four tries in a match and a team that loses by fewer than eight points is awarded a bonus point.
Teams in Pool A: Ireland, Scotland, Japan, Russia, Samoa.
Teams in Pool B: New Zealand, South Africa, Italy, Namibia, Canada.
Teams in Pool C: England, France, Argentina, United States, Tonga.
Teams in Pool D: Australia, Wales, Georgia, Fiji, Uruguay.
The top two teams of the Pool will progress to the quarter-finals and the top three teams of each Pool will automatically qualify for the 2023 World Cup.
If two or more teams are tied on points, the tiebreaking rules will apply and they are: The winner of the match between the two teams, difference between points scored for and points scored against in all pool matches, difference between tries scored for and tries scored against in all pool matches, points scored in all pool matches, most tries scored in all pool matches and official World Rugby rankings as of 14 October 2019.
The Rugby World Cup was first held in 1987 and since then it takes place once in every four years. New Zealand won the first edition and they are the most successful nation at the World Cups, having clinched three titles. They were the also winners of the last two World Cups. Australia and South Africa have also dominated at the World Cup as they won the trophies twice. Australia were the champions of 1991 and 1999 editions while South Africa emerged winners in 1995 and 2007.
England, where the game originated from, have won the title once in 2003. Both Australia and New Zealand have appeared in all eight World Cups.
Ireland are No 1 ranked team coming into the tournament followed by New Zealand and Australia. Here's a look at the top 10 ranks:
1 - Ireland, 89.47 points 2 - New Zealand, 89.40 points 3 - England, 88.13 points 4 - South Africa, 87.34 points 5 - Wales, 87.32 points 6 - Australia, 84.05 points 7 - Scotland, 81 points 8 - France, 79.72 points 9 - Fiji, 77.43 points 10 - Japan, 76.70 points
Three-time defending champion New Zealand are slight favourites in the tightest tournament to date. South Africa and Ireland have strong claims, while Six Nations winner Wales and two-time champion Australia are also in the mix.
If you love drama, it comes very early. The New Zealand All Blacks and South Africa's Springboks face off on Saturday in Yokohama in the most compelling group game of the tournament " and, perhaps a preview of the 2 November final.
In other big games on the opening weekend, three-time finalists France takes on Argentina in a Pool C game that will likely hurt the team that loses " considering England is in the same group " Australia face Fiji in Pool D and Ireland take on Scotland.
South Africa and New Zealand have met four times at the Rugby World Cup and each have two wins " three of those decided by four points or fewer.
The last four head-to-heads between the long-time rivals in the southern hemisphere's Rugby Championship have been decided by two points or fewer, including a 16-16 draw this season.
"Our last three matches have ended in stalemate, one win each and a draw, for an aggregate score of 82-82," Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus said. "I think we have a healthy respect for each other's capabilities but it will come down to a small moment to decide a big game in the end, I suppose."
Even beyond the All Blacks contingent, there is New Zealand flavor everywhere.
Seven of the 20 head coaches are Kiwis. And teams like Japan, which are building and rely on some outside help, are sprinkled with coaches and players with roots away from the country.
Eddie Jones, who coached Japan in the 2015 World Cup, is handling England this time. He's an Australian, whose mother is Japanese and coached his country of birth to a runner-up finish in the 2003 World Cup.
Jamie Joseph is coaching Japan this time. He's a New Zealander who played for the All Blacks in the 1995 World Cup before switching to play for Japan four years later. Japan's captain, Michael Leitch, moved from New Zealand to Japan as a teenager and now probably speaks the language as well as he speaks English.
Japan lost their last World Cup warm-up to South Africa 41-7, a match Joseph used to experiment with his lineup and game plan.
"I think we are near the peak," Leitch said. "The latest game against South Africa made what we need to work on even clearer, and we're almost getting to the peak. I'm sure we'll step up each game toward the quarterfinals."
With inputs from agencies.