For those heading to the Rugby World Cup this year in Japan your journey starts this Saturday on the Gold Coast. The Japan Community of Queensland Inc. cordially invite you to immerse yourself into Japanese food, culture and the people at Albert Waterways Community Centre in Broadbeach from 10am to 5pm. Proudly supported by the Japanese Consulate in Brisbane and Brisbanerugby, this is your first step of the incredible journey for the World Cup to be hosted outside of a ‘traditional‘ rugby nation.
(yon-nen ni ichi-do jyanai. Isshou-ni ichi-do da.)
The catch cry for this year’s World Cup is, “Not every 4 years. Once in a lifetime.” Basically meaning that this will be the ONLY time in your lifetime to experience such an event in Asia.
Japan has a proud history of rugby dating back to 1889, when Edward Bramwell Clarke, an instructor in English language and literature at Keio University at the time, began teaching rugby together with fellow Cambridge alumnus Ginnosuke Tanaka. Enthusiasm for rugby grew in Japan, led mainly by the university and high school students. University rugby became increasingly popular because of the top teams from Waseda, Keio,Meiji and DoshishaUniversities, peaking between the 1980s and early 1990s. From 2016 the Tokyo based Sunwolves entered the Super Rugby competition and played a very competitive match against the Queensland Reds last weekend in Tokyo, narrowly losing 34-31 in the final play.
Some Queensland Reds and Super W players will be on hand around 2pm for autographs and some rugby fun. We are very privileged to have a Japanese player from the Women’s Reds Team, Asako-chan, as well to demonstrate the pathways open to those that persevere, “Fight-o” in Japanese.
From the inception of the Rugby World Cup in 1987, where Australia and New Zealand hosted the inaugural event, the manifestation of this great tournament has been at the forefront of international attention. None more so than the 1995 tourney in South Africa with the Springboks competing for the first time for Nelson Mandela’s newly minted, Rainbow Nation. Who would forget the galvanising of a population under the same banner through rugby union? It was the inspiration for the book, “Playing the Enemy“, by English journalist, John Carlin, that inspired the 2009 movie, “Invictus” directed by Clint Eastward.
Four years later at RWC 1999, former Wallaby captain and Australian rugby commentator, Andrew Slack, stated ahead of the New Zealand v France semi-final in Twickenham, that he would move to the Tongan capital of Nuku’alofa if France won. When the French came from 24-10 down at halftime to upstage the Kiwis 43-31 by the fulltime whistle, Slack was packing his bags. The final that year saw the Wallabies, under John Eales leadership, win their second Webb Ellis Trophy, 35-12 over France.
By 2007, the tournament moved to an exclusively non-English speaking nation France. However, the memorable French 20-18 win over the All Blacks in the quarter-final was in Cardiff, Wales. Incendently, the Argentine Los Pumas affirmed their rugby pedigree defeating the French hosts twice. This time it was the South Africans that clinched their second title, 15-6, over England at Stade de France, Saint-Denis in Paris.
It was the 2011 edition that finally saw the mighty All Blacks overcome 24 years of ridicule and derision to secure their second Webb-Ellis title. In front of 61,079 home fans at the sacred Eden Park, the crucible of rugby in New Zealand, the ABs overcame their nemesis, France, to hold on by the slightest of margins, winning 8-7. Despite the valiant efforts of the French captain, Thierry Dusautoir’s, Man-of-the-Match performance, Les Bleus, couldn’t overcome the Maori challenge.
The Rugby World Cup unites diverse ethnic cultures and languages. It brings the so-called second tier nations to compete against the best teams on the planet in front of huge crowds with a global audience. In RWC 2015 the average attendance across all 48 matches was 95.27%, the most well-patronised event with a total of 2,477,805 in attendance (Wikipedia 2018). The match between Japan and Samoa achieved a television audience record of 25 million in Japan and ITV in the UK recorded 11.6 million viewers for the England v Wales match (RWC site). However, the biggest revelation to come from RWC 2015 was the “Miracle in Brighton“, when the Eddie Jones coached Japan Brave Blossoms defeated the South African Springboks 34-32 after the fulltime siren. This has inspired Australian writer and director, Max Mannix to produce a movie of the lead up to this extraordinary occurrence, with filming commencing on Australia’s Gold Coast this month.
This year the Rugby World Cup carnival, for the first time, moves to Asia and the Land of the Rising Sun. Japan will host the third biggest sporting event on the global stage, with big shoes to fill after the successful UK edition four years hence. Action starts in 8 months with the opening ceremony on September 20th at Ajinomoto Stadium, in Tokyo’s western suburbs, followed by hosts, Japan, taking on Russia through to six weeks of competition culminating with the final at the cavernous 72,327-seat Nissan Stadium in Yokohama.
“Not once every four years. Once in a lifetime!”
Such a bold statement, though justifiably so with the tournament making an initial foray into the Orient, laying testament to the multitude of cultures that make up the rugby family. The Hong Kong Sevens continually draws on this diversity to host the most successful annual 7s rugby pilgrimage there, but for the Rugby World Cup to be held in Asia, this will surely be a once in a lifetime experience.
From the northern ocean roads of 北海道（Hokkaido）to the nine states of 九州（Kyushu）in the south, across 12 stadiums with dedicated host cities, rugby fans will be treated to not only 48 high-quality international rugby matches, but a sensory overload in this ancient country of temples, shrines and castles coupled with exquisite culinary delights presented to the highest caliber. Bring it on!!
In late October I made my way over to the Land of the Rising Sun on a sabbatical to try to really comprehend how rugby is growing in Japan and the fanfare and excitement created around #RWC2019.
My first impressions in Tokyo were that plans were well underway to host the third major global sporting tournament and a buzz was growing amongst the Japanese people. However, I was somewhat delusional inside the bubble of the rugby going public in that first week bookended by the Bledisloe 3 match in Shin-Yokohama on October 27th and the Japanese playing the All Blacks in western Tokyo the week after on November 3. The bubble I refer to was being invited to functions by rugby aficionados in Tokyo from former players of All France, members of the Japanese Rugby Magazine and rugby people at Yokohama Country & Athletic Club.
With my PA, Alisa Okawa, I attended the Third Bledisloe Match between the Australian Wallabies and the New Zealand All Blacks on Saturday, after arriving the day before, at the cavernous Nissan Stadium in Shin Yokohama. Location of the Football World Cup final in 2002 hosted by Japan and South Korea the 72,327-seat stadium attained a record attendance for an international rugby match in Japan with over 46,000 fans watching the Kiwis defeat the Aussies 37-20. An entertaining match with a strong All Blacks side making a clean sweep of the series against a novice Wallabies outfit that will befit greatly from the exposure a year out from the World Cup. In what could be heralded as a preview to the RWC2019 final, as was the case for the RWC2015 final, these two behemoths of the World Cup era in rugby holding three and two Webb Ellis trophies respectively may not end up the finalists after the annus horribilis the Wallabies have endured in 2018 winning only 3 of 12 tests.
The week that followed was catching up with old rugby mates in Tokyo and discussing proposals with stakeholders that set to benefit from Japan hosting the World Cup. I even managed to pull on the boots to play a rugby match at YC&AC in Yokohama over 20 years since I had last played on that ground in the 1990s. To my surprise, there was a schoolboy/girl tournament going on there sponsored by Aussie Beef. Former Brave Blossoms representative and current Toshiba Brave Limpus stalwart, Hiroshi Ono or Kin-chan as the locals call him, was in attendance to give clout to the event that hosted teams from New Zealand and Australia. Great to see rugby being promoted in this soccer/baseball-mad country. I really hope the Japanese Rugby Football Union (JRFU) can really capitalise on the exposure rugby is getting through the RWC2019. Talking with Kyodo news rugby correspondent, Rich Freeman, after my match, he seemed somewhat pessimistic with the Japanese Top League being abandoned for the 2019-20 season. He also thought they should have lowered the ticket price for the Bledisloe Cup match to try for a sellout crowd after the rugby public had just forked out for World Cup tickets. It will be interesting to see how any benefit can come from hosting this event.
For my second week I made my way up into the mountains of central Japan to Nagano where a good friend of mine, Hide, lives in the City of Ueda. He showed me the rugby town of Sugadaira on the outskirts of Ueda where the high school rugby teams from all over Japan gather in summer to go through their paces. Driving through the town you can’t help but be overawed by everything rugby from the rugby ball monument in the centre of town to the Canterbury store, amongst other rugby brands, scattered throughout. Even the 7/11 store caters for sports supplements not common at other franchise locations in Japan. These highlands are where the Italian rugby union team will be based during the six-week tournament starting in September next year.
Heading back to Tokyo for my final weekend I felt somewhat disheartened by the fact that what I initially thought was an excitement for the RWC2019 was, in fact, more a curiosity as to what it would entail. Overshadowed by the Tokyo2020 Olympics, rugby still as a long way to go to capture the minds and souls of this unique homogeneous society reluctant to cash in on the tourism bonanza this event will bring. A chance to really open up and embrace the outside world could be missed unless something drastic is done. I will offer my services to ensure the success of this event and rugby sevens at the Olympics because there is a true bond of camaraderie born from rugby players and their fans.
Last week I went to Sydney as a little-known rugby scribe from Brisbane and came back with the greatest rugby experience that I ever thought possible. I flew down on Wednesday in preparation for my meeting with Mr Shinohara of the RWC2019 Fukuoka Committee and from past experience (namely in 2014) I did not rush or make any bad choices. I was met in the CBD by my best mate and we discussed what strategy I should take for Thursday’s afternoon meeting at the Travelodge Wynyard.
Another rugby buddy from Shenzhen offered me a place to stay at Five Dock, provided I make my way there by public transport. So, armed with an Opal Card I preceded to navigate the city’s transport bus network and arrived at the address in Five Dock just as my friend’s Chinese meeting was finishing. We then regaled stories of playing rugby for the Shenzhen Dragons, particularly the Xiamen trip in 2012, while drinking some King Horse red, sourced from the best grapes in Australia and bottled in the Hunter Valley, and the most fragrant Baijo I have ever tried.
Some smooth Shiraz
We left some bottles for another day
Understandably, I awoke Thursday morning a little groggy, however, knowing the 11am meeting had been pushed back to 1.30pm, I knew I would be right. A walk along the bay to the dog park cleared my head in the crisp morning air and was back for a shower and a fully catered breakfast at the $3 million mansion, known as King Horse Club.
Just before 1pm, my Chinese/Australian buddy drove me into the Travelodge in his 2014 C-class Mercedes for the in-house meeting with Mr Shinohara and two other members of the RWC2019 Fukuoka Committee. Having spoken to Mr Shinohara on the phone, I recognised him straight away in the lobby. The four of us preceded to the hotel restaurant and over the course of three hours, we aligned ourselves with what tactics we should employ to promote World Cup Host City Fukuoka’s tourist aspects for the influx of Australians visiting for the World Cup. This was a day of accomplishment after two months of emails and a single meeting in Brisbane with Mr Yamaki from the Hong Kong office of Fukuoka Prefecture. However, my greatest day was yet to come, because on Friday I met with the Anthony French and Peter Murphy in the boardroom of Rugby Australia at their impressive new facility. The discussions were private, suffice to say the Wallabies doing their best at the World Cup was paramount.
Outside I caught a taxi to Central Station and made my way to Brighten-le-Sands to meet the most knowledgeable man on scrummaging on the planet, Enrique “Topo” Rodriguez.
Topo is the only rugby player to have represented three nations, Argentina 13 caps, Australia 26 caps and 1 test for Tahiti in rugby union. He also played for the Barbarians Club against Scotland in 1991 after he had retired from international rugby with a test match, ironically against Argentina in Buenos Aires on November 7th, 1987. Most known for his scrummaging as a prop, both loose-head and tight-head, his 178cm 110kg frame he has also played hooker. As a young fledgeling hooker, I had always looked to him as an inspiration so you can understand my delight when he phoned me the week before to meet for lunch. Initially, we were going to meet at St George’s Leagues Club close to his Kogarah home, however, due to the possibility of me to help to facilitate a scrum academy in Japan, he decided to switch venues to the more salubrious, Le Sands Restaurant, looking out over the beach of Botany Bay.
An idea he has had since 1988, is developing scrum academies around the world in places such as Argentina, Italy and France. With my appointment as an advisor to the RWC2019 Fukuoka Committee and my status as a Client Manager to Japan, the inclusion of Japan whetted his appetite. The conversation flowed and I began taking copious notes on the back of the menu, then graduating to the paper tablecloth. Topo also joined in writing on the table cover and forthwith grabbed the paper when we left to destroy the evidence.
When I returned to my friend’s apartment in Kogarah, I was high as a kite, having experienced a day that can be only described as euphoric, the greatest day of my life.
NB. Certain names will remain anonymous to protect the guilty.