During the 2019 Women’s Soccer World Cup, those searching for immigration stories had to look to the sidelines. At the 2019 Rugby World Cup, happening right now in Japan, you find similar stories about itinerant coaches and countries bringing in top coaches from overseas to give them an edge. But at this event, the sidelines are not the only place where interesting immigration tales can be found.
Just look to the stands – and the scrum.
When the Women’s Soccer World Cup kicked off in France earlier this year, many teams could expect loyal turnout from France’s large immigrant community. In Japan, which is currently hosting the Rugby World Cup, it is a different story. The local fans in the stands are much less diverse.
Japan is not known for welcoming immigrants. As summarized in a recent report by the Migration Policy Institute, until the early 1900s Japan had a policy of active isolationism. Later, during the post-war period, Japan effectively implemented a program of short-term work permits, discouraging long-term settlement. As recently as 2017, according to the United Nations, only 1.8 percent of the population of Japan was foreign born. By comparison, the same year, foreign-born residents made up 15.3% of the US population, 21.5% of the Canadian population, and 28.8% of the Australian population.
Japan does have one type of immigrant it loves though, rugby players, especially those who played their international rugby for New Zealand. The Kiwi team, known as the All Blacks, have dominated international rugby for decades and are the reigning Rugby World Cup champions. Currently 10 former All Blacks play professional rugby in Japan and the current All Black captain Kieran Read is set to join the Japanese team, Toyota Verbitz, after this World Cup.
Down on the field, where players compete in the head-to-head tussle for ball possession known as the scrum, another canonical immigration story is playing out in the ranks of the US national rugby team, the Eagles. This one follows a well-known trope – skilled young people leaving their home for opportunity abroad. Unlike the All Blacks who often play most of their careers for New Zealand professional teams, American rugby players go abroad early.
Take, for example, the Kiwi and American starting lineups for their first matches in this World Cup shown below. Every single Kiwi plays for a professional team in New Zealand, but only 5 of the 15 American starters play professional rugby at home. In fact, the number of American starters who play in the US is not only less than the number of American starters who play in England (5:7) it is even less than the number of starting All Blacks who play for the Christchurch Crusaders (5:8). The Kiwi team is more homegrown than the US team in other ways. For example, of the starting 15 for each team, 13 Kiwi players were born in New Zealand whereas only 9 of the American players were born in the US.
Despite their well-traveled personnel, the US team is not expected to do well in this World Cup. They lost their first match to England, 45-7, and at time of writing the Eagles are ranked 13th in the world behind rugby powerhouses Fiji (12th) and Georgia (11th). The All Blacks, from a country with about the same size and population as Colorado, are expected to win it all. The final is on November 2nd.