In November 2003 it was only my second day in Japan when England beat Australia to win the Rugby World Cup Final. That night out in Roppongi proved to be a hugely memorable night. 16 years on and I now have another unforgettable experience of watching England in Japan but this time I was there to see it unfold in person in the same stadium where Beckham’s penalty defeated Argentina in 2002.
I really didn’t think Sapporo Dome was the kind of place I’d ever go to twice but after failing so often to get tickets in the pre-tournament ballots I had to set my sights much further afield. First I got a ticket for a later group match in Shizuoka and then I realised that it wouldn’t actually cost too much more to fly up to Sapporo, stay in a capsule hotel, watch England play at the Sapporo Dome and then fly back to Tokyo after the match.
My friend Mostyn had originally booked a trip to see Australia vs Fiji in the same stadium the day before but knowing that I was gonna be in the same city that weekend he then decided to extend his stay and got a match ticket and a new return flight. Needing to change hotels for his extra night, he went off mid-afternoon to check into his new place whilst I entered the fanzone area in Odori Park to watch some of Italy vs Namibia on the big screen with hundreds and hundreds of rugby fans.
Once reunited with Mostyn, we grabbed a couple of beers for the train (no rules in Japan regarding public drinking!) and went from Odori to Fukuzumi; the closest station for the Sapporo Dome. Family Mart is the nearest convenience store to the stadium and it became something of an unofficial fanzone (minus a big screen of course!) for supporters who took over the car park for some pre-match drinking.
It was a cloudy day so when the silver spaceship-like stadium suddenly appeared I didn’t notice it straightaway. What a sight it is though and the idea of the pitch sliding under one of the stands into the stadium is revolutionary. The whole transformation process (Watch it here) has to be seen to be believed.
With plenty of time till kick off I wanted to get some shots of the stadium from the backside of it as I didn’t have time to do that on my previous visit in 2015. It slightly resembles a crater which fits in with the sci-fi nature of the place I guess. There were only a few people who had the same idea as us and it was quite incredible to find a moment of solitude in such a busy place where 40,000 people were so close by.
Even though we booked our tickets months apart we were sat amazingly close to each other (two rows apart and 12 seats along to be exact!) and as there were a few empty seats around us we were able to watch the second half together.
New Zealand ran riot against Tonga in one of the pre-tournament warm-up games as they scored 14 tries in a 92-7 rout so I wasn’t expecting too much from them. I never thought the scoreline would be anything like that though and so it proved to be. Other than that I can’t say I knew too much more about Tonga beforehand other than that they have a tighthead prop called Ben Tameifuna who is an incredible 151 kilograms! Oh and there was a substitute called Fukofuka!
Is it just me or is England’s national anthem one of the shortest around?! Some others seem to go on and on but ours flies by in no time at all! Anyway, kick off soon followed just after 7:15 pm and it was a fairly scrappy first half with three potential tries for England going to the TMO (television match official) and all of them seemed impossible to decide if the ball had been grounded with so many bodies in the way.
I was quite surprised that the second one was given as I couldn’t make out that Leicester’s Manu Tuilagi had managed to get the ball down after bulldozing his way through the Tongan defence. There was no debate about his second try though as some slick passing put him through to give England an 18-3 advantage.
The second half wasn’t much better and a driving maul well and truly finished off a competitive Tongan side around the hour mark.
My flight was just after midnight and I truly I thought I had plenty of time after the match to go back to Sapporo and take the train to New Chitose Airport which is nearly 50 kilometres south from there. I had even told Mostyn I’d have time time for a post-match beer. How wrong I was and thankfully I decided to have a quick look at the train times during the half time break. I hate to think what would have happened if I hadn’t looked!
There was no train from Sapporo after 10 pm, and with the game having lots of injury time, the second half started much later than expected so I decided to exit on 71 minutes and run to the station. I was quite shocked to see huge crowds of people had done likewise and I had to weave my way between them all to make it for the 9:15 pm train. That wasn’t the end of it though as I then had to cover a fair distance in a short space of time when I changed trains at Sapporo Station.
As it was, I missed a further try from replacement hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie which gave England the bonus point given for scoring four tries in a match. Later at the airport I got talking to a few other people who had had to do the same as me. One couple actually left on 63 minutes!
Final Score: England 35 – 3 Tonga
My flight touched down at 2am and my night (morning!) had a long distance to run still. Of course all trains to Tokyo had long finished and a taxi was certainly out of the question. It was also not possible to stay anywhere in Haneda Domestic Terminal so I (and a few others) decided to walk to the International Terminal where it is possible to sleep. I thought this would be a 5-10 minute walk but couldn’t have been more wrong. Unbelievably, it was nearly an hour on foot.
At one point there was a very long tunnel to walk through and it was typically raining when I got out into the open on the other side so the last 20 minutes or so were spent getting wet and finally, just after 3am, I was in the dry when I reached my destination and could recline for a couple of hours. Not on the seats though as they were all in use so I had to lie down on the floor with my bag as a pillow! I was unable to really get any sleep though and it was a long night before the first train of the day to Shinagawa left around 5;30 am! I eventually got home just before 7am!
When I originally booked the flights I had no idea that the day after the match was a national holiday which was a bit annoying as I could have just returned to Tokyo on that day. Although it would have provided a better story if I had had to go to work later that morning I was ultimately mightily relieved that I had the day off to recover and reflect on an amazing and eventful 24 hours in Sapporo.
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