'Mini World Cup' unites kids from across Asia at Japan hero's club

Under-14 teams played XRugby tournament in Fukuoka, then watched the Brave Blossoms' historic win over Ireland.

FUKUOKA, 1 Oct - As Kenki Fukuoka was writing his name in Rugby World Cup history by scoring Japan's decisive try against Ireland in Shizuoka on Saturday, 750km away at the Genkai Junior Rugby Club, a room full of children from across Asia, below, were going into raptures.

The youth players came from Bangladesh, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal, Thailand, Taiwan and Macau to participate in the second Asian Rugby Exchange Festival - an XRugby tournament and a key part of World Rugby's Impact Beyond legacy programme, which has resulted in more than 1.8 million people playing rugby in Asia ahead of Rugby World Cup 2019.

IMPACT BEYOND INSPIRED 1.8 MILLION RUGBY PARTICIPANTS IN ASIA 

As Fukuoka crossed the line, there were similar joyous scenes across Japan, but in this local rugby club in Fukuoka there was a heightened sense of pride and exaltation. This was because Fukuoka, who came off the bench to inspire the Brave Blossoms to their stunning victory over last year's World Rugby Team of the Year, is an ex-Genkai Juniors player.

"The young players here look up to Kenki and try to copy his stepping style," said Genkai coach Masahiro Oba. "He is a player who has been where they are now."

Chants of "Nippon!" erupted throughout the match, reaching a crescendo of screaming and cheering when Fukuoka scored his try.

THE STORY OF KENKI FUKUOKA

But before the Japan game, the players had been opponents on the rugby field. Representing 16 under-14 teams from across Japan and Asia, they had just finished the first day of the two-day tournament at Sanix Global Arena Stadium, home to the Genkai club, which fielded two teams.

XRugby aims to encourage participation, with an emphasis on enjoyment and simplicity, by allowing people to play the game without the need for posts, large squads and a full-sized field. It is played on a 50x70m pitch, with seven players on each side. 

Scrums, lineouts and mauls feature just three players from each team, while tackles and all kicks must be under shoulder height.

FIND OUT MORE ABOUT XRUGBY

The format is a key aspect of the Impact Beyond programme, which aims to promote and develop the game throughout Asia. Exchange initiatives such as this weekend's tournament in Fukuoka, jointly organised by Asia Rugby and the Japan Rugby Football Union with support from World Rugby, are a crucial part of that work.

Ian Davidson, above left, was one of the players who travelled to Japan with his club, the Jakarta Komodos Rugby Football Club. Living in Indonesia, which does not have a large rugby-playing population, meant Ian did not always have access to the sport. But after two years of playing, he says it is his "favourite sport".

"When I got into rugby I didn't really know what it was, but after the first day I just fell in love with it," he said.

"I'm really excited to be here. I love playing in tournaments because all year I've been playing against the same people and, finally, I get to play against some new teams and get to meet people from all over Asia."

The young players also attended the Italy versus Canada RWC 2019 match in Fukuoka last Thursday as part of their four-day trip.

Davidson was blown away by the fan culture at the stadium for his first top-level match. "It was really exciting because I'd never actually been to a professional sports game, I'd only ever seen them on television," he said.

"The energy is much different and I felt like everyone there was my friend and we were all cheering for the same thing."

Davidson and his team-mates were accompanied on the trip by Jakarta Komodos coach Iswahyudi and chairman Agus Djamhoer, who is also vice-chairman of Indonesian Rugby. Djamhoer has been instrumental in the rise of the Komodos, growing the club from 20 to 120 junior players.

Rather than being focused on results, Ian was more inspired by the relationships he had formed playing XRugby.

"It's a really fun, super-cool experience because it's like your own little under-14 World Cup," he said. "We have talked about the game together and practised together and just had some good times."

RNS fm/sg/rl/mr/bo