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Kirwan Doffs Cap To All Blacks Machine

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media
Kirwan Doffs Cap To All Blacks Machine

By Mark Geenty of NZPA

Tokyo, Oct 29 NZPA - John Kirwan can only dream of his Japan rugby side playing before a full house at the National Stadium.

But the 63-test All Blacks winger says Saturday's Bledisloe Cup test, a likely sell out, is the next best thing for Japanese rugby which, in his eyes, has lost touch with the public.

And the spinoffs for the All Blacks could be significant too, with Kirwan raising the prospect of Asian sponsorship of New Zealand's national team in the future as their popularity grows further here.

Kirwan said the test against Australia, aside from the obvious financial benefits for both countries, was a significant step for Japan as they begin the countdown to their own World Cup in 2019.

"The All Blacks are the biggest global rugby brand. If it was Australia playing someone else there probably wouldn't be the coverage we're getting," he said.

"The All Blacks are an entertainment brand in themselves so anything that they can do to help Asian growth is going to help them.

"One of the growth markets even in the recession has been Indonesia and Asia, so if rugby can become popular there, who knows where the next All Blacks sponsor is coming from?"

Media interest has built steadily in Tokyo this week and after initially slow ticket sales, and Kirwan predicted a sellout of close to 45,000.

That's largely unheard of in rugby terms, with Tokyo's premier baseball team the Giants drawing regular packed houses of 40,000-plus in their recent playoff series at Tokyo Dome.

There, the cheapest tickets are around $US25 ($NZ34), while the cheapest for the rugby on Saturday are more than three times that.

"Rugby's a very old sport here, over 100 years old. It's very popular and well ingrained politically. We've lost a little bit of touch with the public but I think with a little bit of marketing the game will grow quickly.

"We get 15,000-20,000 people to a game, and there will be 40,000-45,000 there on Saturday. If we could aim in five years to have a crowd for our Japanese national team of 40,000-45,000, that's a pretty realistic goal."

Kirwan, 44, took the reins of the Japan side in 2006 and is contracted until the next World Cup in New Zealand in 2011.

Having previously coached Italy, he well knows the tricky task of getting the national side performing without much structure at grass roots level.

But he insists a Japanese side in Super rugby isn't the answer, and feels the country can become more powerful on a world stage by strengthening their own 14-team competition.

"A strong club competition is how you get strong in future. We've got the 20 biggest companies in the world sponsoring our game. We need to give them more exposure."

His blueprint is for New Zealand and Australia to play a National Rugby League-style competition through the year, then break off for a competition including sides from Japan, Argentina, the Pacific Islands and North America in similar format to the European leagues.

Still, there's little to grumble about for Kirwan who admits he's living his dream.

And after a few days in Tokyo it's hard not to concur with Kirwan's glowing assessment of the lifestyle.

"I love the people, I love the culture. There's 34 million people in Tokyo, the lights are always on but you feel safe. It's clean and the food's great. I've got a really good job so life's pretty good at the moment."

That's until 2011 when his career will again be, in his words, at a crossroads.

But as he mulls over what to do next, there's one certain goal for the rugby globetrotter. He's a fluent Italian speaker, could be better in Japanese, and now wants to learn French.

"I'm a bit disappointed in my Japanese, to be honest. I can speak it to the boys and my friends understand me, but I struggle a wee bit which is really disappointing.

"With the team I've got two translators, I've got a male and a female depending on how I feel I'm going to talk to the team or how angry I am.

"My goal is to speak four (languages) so I'm still studying. I just about gave up last year but I thought I need to keep going. I'd like to learn French next."

And his tip for Saturday? Despite it being a dead rubber he predicts there will be a steely edge, with Wallabies coach Robbie Deans under some heat and the All Blacks coaches having bravely swapped roles.

"I think there will be a lot of feeling out there. It's a real test match that both coaching teams will want to win. Being a New Zealander there's absolutely no way I wouldn't back our boys."


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