TOKYO • A strong showing by the Japan national team is considered crucial for attendances and atmosphere as the 2019 Rugby World Cup arrives, for the first time, in a country where rugby is not a mainstream sport.
The Brave Blossoms, who stunned South Africa at the last World Cup, are bullish, with winger Akihito Yamada saying he hoped to draw England and their ex-Japan coach Eddie Jones in today's draw in Kyoto.
"I want (Jones) to see Japan's new style of rugby after four years," he insisted.
Captain Shota Horie added: "All the teams will be strong, so I don't have any real preferred opposition.
"The first game will be key, so we will prepare for that as if our lives depend on it."
Steve Hansen's New Zealand are striving to complete a hat-trick of World Cup wins, while England, up to second in the world rankings under Jones, are dreaming of ending the All Blacks' dominance.
South Africa, Australia, Wales and France are likely to be revamped and revitalised by 2019, while Argentina and Japan will look to build on their successes of 2015.
Although 20 countries will take part in the World Cup, there will be only 12 names in the draw: the teams that finished in the top three of their groups in 2015.
They have been split into three groups according to their rankings: New Zealand, England, Australia and Ireland occupy the first tier, avoiding one another; then come Scotland, France, South Africa and Wales; Argentina, Japan, Georgia and Italy form the third wave.
The other eight teams will be decided after qualifying matches in Africa, the Americas, Europe and Oceania.
Rugby is striving to make inroads into Asia, including China, where World Rugby announced a US$100 million (S$141 million) investment from Alisports last year.
Participation in Asia has almost doubled since 2009 to more than 500,000 players, according to the governing body, which hopes to have one million new players in the region by 2019.
The World Cup will be played in 12 stadiums across Japan, with 75 per cent of the population living within an hour's drive from a match venue, organisers say.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, THE GUARDIAN