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Having faced each other on the pitch over a decade ago, two rugby stars from France and Japan met again recently, this time to discuss the upcoming Rugby World Cup and the sport’s future.
Frederic Michalak, currently a special advisor for LOU Rugby of Lyon, and Takuro Miuchi, now coaching the Hino Red Dolphins in Tokyo, sat with reporters at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan in Tokyo. There they answered questions regarding the 2019 Rugby World Cup being hosted by Japan, the 2023 World Cup in France, and the ways in which the sport is adapting to a changing world. The pair first met in Australia, when Japan faced France in the 2003 Rugby World Cup.
Addressing the audience in Japanese through an interpreter, Miuchi began with recollections of his time playing overseas:
“One of my fond memories was playing in France in 2007. I remember the warm welcome we had from the French team. So, this year as Japan is going to organize the World Cup here, we would like to welcome not only the French team, but all the other teams that are coming as well.”
“And just as Japan is hosting the Olympic Games in 2020,” he added, “France will host the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games after the 2023 Rugby World Cup. This will be a good opportunity for us to have a close relationship with the sports associations of France, and through sport we would like to build this relationship.”
Asked about Japan’s prospects for the upcoming tournament, especially in light of their surprise victory over South Africa in the 2015 World Cup, Miuchi responded, “Japan won three matches in the previous World Cup, but unfortunately couldn’t advance to the final round. I think now we have a good mix of coaching skill and the mentality of the Japanese players.
“Over the last three years, I think the Japanese team is becoming much more autonomous,” Miuchi continued. “they think by themselves about tactics and strategy, compared with the previous generation. We have many test matches, which are a very good experience for players, but for the seven months ahead, we need to practice a lot.”
Michalak, who arrived in Japan together with France’s Minister of Sport to act as an ambassador for the 2023 Rugby World Cup, added, “The Japanese team has progressed a lot, last year they were 17-17 against France, so we can see the gap between 2003 [when he and Miuchi faced each other] and now; Japanese rugby has progressed a lot. They play rugby with a lot of skill and technique. The players are not so physical, like bodybuilders, but they create good rugby that’s nice to watch. I’m sure they can pass the first round to qualify for the quarterfinals.”
In both Japan and France, youth rugby academies are developing the next generation of talent and creating future rugby fans. Regarding the legacies they hope will be left by their respective World Cups, Miuchi said, “I’ve had the opportunity to coach kids through the academy with the Red Dolphins, and having the World Cup in Japan this year will be a great chance for them to enjoy real rugby, and to feel very close to the sport. But while the World Cup this year is important, the years after will also be very important for kids. The homework for many Rugby Association people is how to educate through rugby.”
On France’s hopes for their World Cup in 2023, Michalak said, “In terms of tourists, we are expecting around 450,000 in France, and I hope a lot [will be] Japanese.”
He added, “What we want during this World Cup is to put rugby at the top level in terms of media and sponsoring, to see Rugby everywhere in France: in the streets, the schools, everywhere. We know that rugby has value for your normal life - respect, solidarity; that’s something that can touch kids. We hope to bring more kids into rugby, and I’m sure the World Cup will be the best for that.”
Getting more kids into rugby will require working with schools to incorporate the sport into their physical education programs. “In Japan, there is tag rugby,” said Miuchi, “which is being introduced in elementary and middle schools. Players from the top league are visiting elementary and middle schools to coach it. And although the number of schools introducing tag rugby is increasing, I hope that within the education system, we have more schools focusing on the spirit of rugby, such as camaraderie and team spirit.”
At the end, the pair were asked who they thought would end up as the winner of this year’s Rugby World Cup. After a pause, Miuchi began, “That’s the most difficult question,” before Michalak offered a reassuring, “You can say France.”