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Players warm up during an open training session

Kitakyushu – a home away from home for Wales

The Welsh Rugby Union plan to build on their burgeoning relationship with Kitakyushu after more than 15,000 people in the city watched Warren Gatland’s Rugby World Cup squad train.

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Ahead of the start of the tournament in Japan on Friday, Wales have been working hard in the south of the country where they have had a remarkable welcome.

Kitakyushu has proved a home away from home for Wales in their first few days in the Far East after the WRU began a legacy programme there 18 months ago.
WRU rugby enterprise manager Greg Woods has been a key part of that programme.

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He said: “The open training session and the players meeting everyone was always going to be the end of the programme for part one.

“We’ve had three trips leading up to this with coaching and refereeing courses and we’ve delivered them to primary schools, secondary schools, middle schools and colleges and universities in Japan. “We’ve been into lots of rugby clubs as well.

“They’ve been action packed days with a wide range of activities. It’s been building and every time we have come back over an 18-month period we’ve been able to see the interest and the support gathering momentum.

“When we landed last week we felt it had really revved up and everywhere you go in Kitakyushu you see red whether it’s a T-shirt, a banner, a flag or a poster. They’ve been fantastic hosts and have really bought into it. They’ve tried to make rugby accessible to all people.”

WRU business development manager Rhys Williams has also paid regular visits to Kitakyushu over the last two years.

Speaking at the open training session which wowed Wales head coach Gatland and his World Cup squad, Williams said: “I’ve never seen anything like this and it was good to see a couple of the players poke their head out the door and have a look and think ‘Wow’ to themselves.

“We hosted an open training session with Wales at Principality Stadium last autumn and we had 12,000 or 13,000 there. We’ve topped that here. It is just remarkable.

“A lot of it has been about cultural exchange. There is the rugby side of course, but in Japan there is a formality to things as well. There aren’t many westerners here so it’s about interacting with the people. They see us walking around and want to interact with us. That is a huge part of our programme. It was shown when we were in Kitakyushu park and people just wanted to come up and meet us. The people here have been brilliant to work with and this is the celebration we all wanted – for them to come here and watch the Wales World Cup team train.

“Hopefully we have left a legacy of rugby here through coaches and referees. We’ve coached men, women, boys and girls. We want to continue their enjoyment and engagement of rugby into the future with a continued programme. Rugby does come here through the women’s sevens programme and the Olympics and Paralympics are in Japan next year. Hopefully we can build on this.

“We’ve trained over 3,000 people in rugby since we started this project 18 months ago. Rugby has definitely taken a step up here. We had a session here on Sunday and there were lots of men and women there with zero rugby experience. That’s absolutely great for us as we want to show the people here rugby is not all about 15 men on 15. It can be small sided games, touch, tag or lots of other things. The most important thing is as many people as possible are playing the game.”

So what next in the partnership between Wales and Kitakyushu? This is just the start according to Woods with more work planned in the future.

“We’ve twinned primary and secondary schools here in Japan with ones back in Wales. They are digitally pen palling and will be exchanging cultural experiences with each other throughout the World Cup,” he said.

“It’s little projects like that which will keep what we’ve done here alive. We’ve trained up so many coaches and referees over our time here and shown schools and clubs what rugby can look like.

“It can be fun and we’ve talked about alternative forms of the game. It’s been a fantastic project to work on and we’re incredibly proud of all the Welsh Rugby Union staff who have helped deliver it with us. We’re also grateful for the city’s support.”

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