When Nigel Owens blew his whistle and Yury Kushnarev launched the ball high into the Tokyo sky to start the opening match of RWC 2019 between hosts Japan and Russia, no-one could have predicted what the rugby landscape would look like 12 months on.
A measure of the long-lasting impact of COVID-19 is that South Africa have yet to play since they lifted the Webb Ellis Cup for a third time after a dominant 32-12 victory in the final against England in Yokohama on 2 November, 2019.
Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Argentina and Fiji are among the other participating countries still to take to the field in 2020.
It’s a very different picture to the one this time last year when the 20 best teams on the planet gathered to take part in a 48-game global jamboree of rugby spread across 12 wonderfully diverse cities in Japan.
Typhoon Hagibis may have shaken the country to its core but RWC 2019 refused to be blown off course despite the unfortunate cancellation of three matches.
The spirit of the Japanese people was never better demonstrated than in the 24 hours before the Brave Blossoms’ crucial winner-takes-all Pool A encounter against Scotland at the International Stadium Yokohama.
Yokohama was one of the areas that bore the brunt of the 1,400km-wide storm and parts of the stadium and the surrounding area were underwater less than 24 hours before kick-off.
A monumental clean-up effort ensured the game went ahead, however, and the rugby on show did not disappoint as Japan used all their attacking prowess to win 28-21 and book their place in the quarter-finals for the first time in the tournament’s history.
That Japanese resilience is also epitomised by the Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium. Built on the site of the elementary and junior high schools destroyed by the Great East Japan Earthquake and resulting tsunami in March 2011, the stadium hosted what turned out to be an epic game between Fiji and Uruguay.
A minute’s silence was held before kick-off in honour of the 1,000 lives that were lost eight years earlier and the emotional theme of the day ran through to the post-match celebrations as tears rolled down the cheeks of winning captain Juan Manuel Gaminara.
Uruguay had defied all odds – and the World Rugby Men’s Rankings – to beat a side ranked nine places higher than them and record only their third Rugby World Cup win.
”One Team”, Japan's slogan for the tournament to signify the country’s collective effort in staging such a magnificent festival of rugby, was later picked as the country's buzzword of the year.
But that was not reflective of the number of teams in with a chance of ultimate glory. While New Zealand dominated the 2011 and 2015 tournaments, no one team stood out above all others in Japan, making it a wonderfully competitive affair that was joyously embraced by locals and the 400,000 international visitors alike.
The tournament attracted a record 1.13 million people to official fan zones and a record 99.3 per cent attendance with 1.84 million tickets sold across the 12 venues, helping to make it the most economically successful yet.
Those that could not attend in person were glued to their screens back home. In the host nation, a total cumulative audience of 425 million tuned into RWC 2019, more than five times the Japanese viewership for England 2015.
Inspired by the heroics of Jamie Joseph’s Brave Blossoms and underpinned by World Rugby initiatives Get Into Rugby and Impact Beyond, rugby has captured the imagination of the world’s most-populous continent on an unprecedented scale.
Data from World Rugby’s Year in Review 2019 shows hosting the tournament in Japan helped attract 2.25 million new rugby participants in Asia – an increasing number of them women and girls – including 1.18 million in Japan alone. World Rugby Chairman, Sir Bill Beaumont, described this as “perhaps the most important ‘try’ of the tournament”.
Both Impact Beyond and Get Into Rugby have and will continue to play a crucial role in growing rugby globally and broadening the game’s diversity across gender, ethnicity, age, and social backgrounds.
And with fixtures now confirmed between October and December for the remainder of the men’s and women’s Six Nations and the newly-created Autumn Nations Cup, plus the Olympic Games in Tokyo and Rugby World Cup 2021 on the horizon, there is, at last, much to look forward to.