Rugby World Cup declared open in Japan

Tokyo (AFP) –


Japan's Prince Akishino declared the Rugby World Cup open on Friday, the first time the global showcase has been held in Asia as the game seeks to tap into new horizons.

Twenty teams will compete for the Webb Ellis Cup with the final in Yokohama on November 2 and the gleaming trophy was carried out by the former skipper of the reigning champions, All Black Richie McCaw.

The 2019 edition is expected to be one of the most open World Cups in history, with five or six teams capable of dethroning the defending champions.

Combining the ancient with the modern, the ceremony drew deeply on symbolic Japanese cultural references.

Encapsulated in the theme of a Japanese festival, the ceremony told the story of the mythical dawn of time, rugby's origins and its arrival in Japan, and the blossoming of Rugby World Cup into today's global showpiece.

On a pristine pitch, the flags of Japan and Russia -- who will contest the first match -- fluttered either side of that of the sport's global governing body, World Rugby.

Banks of spotlights highlighted a sell-out crowd, many wearing replica Japan tops. Russia fans were a little harder to spot.

A military brass band, traditional dancers, live DJs, martial artists and drummers all took to the stage, as high-definition graphics projected onto the stage.

They ran through the myriad of venues, virtual mapping of each city's characteristics shown up to much applause.

The story of the birth and growth of rugby was then superimposed onto an iconic image of a snow-capped Mount Fuji.

The 20 countries taking part were announced, the biggest roars saved for the host nation, closely followed by defending champions New Zealand and South Africa.

Schoolchildren then delivered an a-capella version of World Rugby's theme tune, "World in Union", with highlights of each of the previous eight tournaments projected onto the makeshift Mount Fuji.

Fireworks shot out as traditional Japanese animation brought to life Hokusai's waves before formalities drew to a close.

"You can all be very proud tonight, you have made history," said World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont.

"I know Japan will be the most welcoming of hosts. You are the best."

Akishino added: "I hope the tournament will strengthen the bonds between participating countries and help grow the game around the world.

"I hereby declare the tournament open."