|Rugby World Cup 2019|
|Host nation: Japan Dates: 20 September – 2 November|
|Coverage: Live commentary on every game on BBC Radio 5 Live and BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra, with live text commentary on selected games on the BBC Sport website and app|
“We are honoured to welcome the global rugby family to our country and for the first time ever to Asia.”
Japan Rugby Football Union president Yoshiro Mori extended his invitation more than 10 years ago, after winning the right to host the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Now, it is time for the world’s top Test sides to answer it.
Even with more than a decade to get ready, a long-haul trip to one of the world’s most distinctive cultures presents a host of new challenges for the northern hemisphere’s finest.
Scotland’s backroom team take us through the meticulous preparations and industrial-scale packing job required for rugby union’s big trip to the Far East.
Scotland have reasonably recent experience of playing in Japan after a two-Test tour in the summer of 2016, but have been back for several reconnaissance trips since.
“I went out on 9 September 2018, exactly one year before we go, to get a good look at the country at the specific time of year we are going,” explains Scotland’s performances services operations manager David Edge.
“I then went back in April, visiting our training venues and hotels for a more specific visit where we could look at the intricacies of our trip.
“Planning for 2019 wasn’t the point of the 2016 trip but it did give us an excellent snapshot of the culture and some of the challenges we may face.”
Mark Beels has the formidable task of making sure Gregor Townsend’s men have everything they need.
“Our freight has maybe doubled in tonnage since 2015, not because it’s Japan, but because of the sheer amount of kit we use for training now,” he explained.
“We need to bring all our specialist contact shields, along with nutrition and medical supplies for seven weeks and potentially seven matches.
“Our analysis kit grows by the day, as it becomes such a big part of the sport.
“We always have a screen and a big digital clock at training along with our drones, GPS, cameras, laptops and the rest.
“We’ve sent just over four tonnes out in advance and will join this up with the rest of our training gear when we get there.”
Thirty-one over-sized men travelling for 14 hours and 5,500 miles in a 75m-long aeroplane. It is an equation that poses some problems for elite sportspeople.
“Jetlag and travel fatigue are the two major challenges,” explains Scotland’s head strength and conditioning coach Stuart Yule.
“We will support players’ sleep with eye masks and ear plugs, and they will be issued with a travel pack containing chewing gum, first defence and zinc tablets to support immunity.
“Players will wear compression socks and have timings for a stretch and movement to improve blood flow.
“Typically jetlag would be one day per time zone crossed travelling eastward, so Japan should be eight days to fully get over it.
“The days after arrival we’ll ensure training is progressed, sleep is prioritised, the timing of sun exposure is utilised and individuals are monitored closely.”
A tinfoil tray of rubbery chicken, a bread roll and single slice of cream cheese is hardly the food you would choose to fuel an elite-level squad in transit.
Scotland’s performance nutritionist Tom Coughlin will bulk out the in-flight meal with individual rations.
“I tend to put together travel packs for the players with some convenient items such as fruit, biltong, nuts and protein bars,” he said.
“I also like to provide some guidelines around good items to eat at the airport, usually fruit or vegetable-based options to help keep the immune system strong during travel.”
Coughlin’s major task, though, is overseeing the team’s intake once they are on the ground in Japan.
The local food is popular with players well used to eating “clean” simple protein portions, complex carbohydrates and minimal fat.
“Japanese food can be beneficial from a fuelling and recovery perspective too due to increased intakes of nutrients such as omega-3 and electrolytes,” he said.
“We have had a number of Japanese theme nights throughout camp to give us an idea of what is ahead for the team.
“In addition, World Rugby has been consulting with the designated hotels and chefs to help train and educate them in more ‘western’ cuisine. Therefore, we will be having a mixture of the two cuisines during our time out in Japan.
“We will be able to get a lot of our usual snack items out in Japan such as fresh fruit, cereal bars, biltong and rice cakes, however some items we may struggle to get.
“Also, some of our snacks are available but may not be available in the quantities that we need, such as milk.”
England have reportedly sent supplies of tomato ketchup and mayonnaise ahead of the team because their favourite condiments are so scarce and expensive in Japan.
Daytime temperatures in Tokyo in September can be up around 30 degrees Celsius, with high humidity putting further strain on players coming straight from a lukewarm northern hemisphere summer.
Scotland have taken the logical step of making their players’ summers considerably warmer.
“We have utilised passive heat strategies, hot baths and saunas to begin the acclimation process to heat,” explains Yule.
“In addition, we have spent time in Portugal, where players were training in hot conditions similar to the temperatures we may experience in Japan.”
Ireland have also decamped to the Algarve to get used to the sort of heat they can expect in Japan, while Wales got the haemoglobin-boosting benefits of training at altitude in Switzerland before heading to Turkey.
One eventuality that will be difficult to allow for is typhoons. September is peak season for extreme weather in the country.
Pool matches that cannot be played on the day for which they are scheduled will not be shifted to a different day. Instead, they will be recorded as a draw, potentially with significant knock-on effects for qualification.
Sumo wrestling is the national sport of Japan. But there are a host of other sports – baseball, karate, football and tennis for instance – that also enjoy more popularity and profile than rugby.
Top-level rugby in Japan is dominated by university and corporate works teams. Edge says he is confident Japanese enthusiasm will make up for a lack of experience in hosting the sport at the top level.
“The biggest challenge will be getting to grips with the different culture and working with people who may not have huge experience of dealing with international rugby teams,” he adds.
“However, everyone I’ve met is determined to make us very welcome and deliver a brilliant tournament and I’m sure they will.”
World Rugby has worked with teams hotels to ensure that beds and showerheads are long and high enough to accommodate their guests.
The visiting teams will have to adapt as well, though.
Edge is concerned that some Scotland players, more accustomed to the UK rail network, might be left behind by Japan’s world-leading levels of punctuality.
“My biggest worry is getting them all on the bullet trains in time for departure,” he said.
“You don’t get long to get on and I know some of our guys like to drift away from the group for coffees.”
Beels has packed some rash vest and leggings to cover tattoos that are associated with yakuza criminal gangs in Japanese society.
Public baths and hot spring resorts in the country often refuse to admit tattooed people, although some are loosening their rules for the tournament by providing coverings to hide the offending ink and designating special times.
He has also found space for a pair of box-fresh trainers for all the players and coaches because of the strict rules around the use of indoor training facilities.
Recreational activities will have a different flavour as well in Japan, although Scotland will take advantages of the passions shared by both countries.
“Golf will be a popular activity for the players, both on the course and in the simulators in the big cities and we are keen to go and see some other sports – baseball, sumo and football especially,” explained Edge.
“In Nagasaki we will visit the atomic bomb museum to pay our respects and allow the squad to appreciate the huge impact this had on Nagasaki. There’s a great lesson there in resilience and fighting back when everything is against you.”