Rugby World Cup: How Wales created a home-away-from-home in Japan

CNN  — 

You could be forgiven for thinking that you were in the center of Cardiff on an international match day due to the number of buildings proudly decorated with Welsh flags and buses emblazoned with the faces of Alun Wyn Jones and Leigh Halfpenny.

Roads lined with fans and a stadium full of cheering on watchers also greeted the Welsh rugby team in the Japanese city of Kitakyushu when they arrived on Saturday.

The Japanese city is Wales’ base for their pre-Rugby World Cup camp, and the locals have certainly committed to adopting the Welsh as their second team.

“Seeing all the banners and the people cheering us was brilliant,” Wales center Owen Watkin told the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU).

“You see people driving past when you stop at traffic lights and they’ll recognize the three feathers and they start banging the windows and waving. It’s great they’re supporting us so much.”

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It’s no coincidence that Wales-mania is blossoming in Kitakyushu.

After Wales played Japan in Cardiff in 2016, the WRU established a program aimed at building a “home-away-from-home” for when the Welsh team arrived at their pre-tournament base ahead of the 2019 Rugby World Cup’s start.

Over the last three years, the WRU has organized clinics for young kids in Kitakyushu, run coaching courses for people looking to get involved in the game as well as promoting Welsh culture.

“We’re hoping that the team is going to get really surprised by the warmth and the amount of people that are aware of Welsh rugby,” WRU business development manager Rhys Williams told CNN Sport ahead of the team’s arrival in Japan.

“It just amazes me how much effort they’re putting into it. They’re obviously looking at the World Cup and saying, ‘this is an opportunity for us to give experiences to our citizens, to allow them to engage with the World Cup in any format but also get to go meet, see, support and view an international rugby side.’”

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Developing the game

Japan will become the first Asian side to host a rugby World Cup when the Brave Blossoms face Russia in the tournament’s curtain-raiser on September 20.

Whereas smoothly integrating the Welsh players into their new Japanese surroundings was always the primary objective of the project, increasing the popularity of rugby in Japan was also a key WRU goal.

Welsh flags are carried through Kitakyushu.

“We’ve been introducing young boys and girls, men and women, able and unable into rugby, whatever level of their engagement is,” Williams said.

“We’ve been coaching coaches and we’ve also been coaching referees. What we’re trying to do is build a holistic base that hopefully rugby can thrive within the area. Engaging doesn’t have to always be contact rugby or 15 on 15 as predominantly what they see is men’s rugby.

“It could just be having fun with skills, drills, keeping fit, health and well-being … learning communication skills or the soft-core skills that rugby helps develop within any social team that play along the length and breadth of Wales every weekend.”

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A welcoming nation

During five-day spells in Japan, Welsh rugby coaches trained over a thousand people of all ages.

Envoys from the WRU even played a part in the recent Wasshoi festival – Kitakyushu’s largest summer festival – where they performed a four-and-a-half minute dance with thousands of local citizens.

“Every time we go over there, we’re just amazed by the warmth and the way we’re always welcomed by the Japanese people and citizens,” said the 39-year-old Williams – a former Welsh international.

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“Every time, the experiences that we get, and our coaches get, and our employees get is just phenomenal with the welcome, the engagement activities that we do, getting to know one another’s cultures, learning how to coach rugby without being able to speak the language at all.

“So, having to develop your coaching styles with more visual aids and with body language rather than just relying on your words.”

While neighboring cities Kumamoto, Fukuoka and Oita will all host games during the tournament, the omission of Kitakyushu as a venue might have been perceived negatively by the locals.

But in the absence of any games, the city has fully embraced the Welsh team and the nation’s culture with flags of the Red Dragon flying high, daffodils on display and Welsh cakes being served.