For the last six weeks the Rugby World Cup (RWC) has never been too far away from TV, online, radio and newspaper headlines. For something which is considered a fairly minor sport in Japan it’s certainly made a splash over here. When the RFU announced 11 years ago that Japan would be hosts in 2019 it was considered a brave decision but one which was needed to take the game to new corners of the globe rather than the usual traditional rugby-playing nations. The streets were adorned with banners and flags advertising the RWC although I’m not sure how much people even notice such things in a city cluttered with advertising
For the final last Saturday I was working till 5:50 pm but within minutes of the final lesson ending I was in the nearest bar to see the teams come out on to the field in Yokohama. Sadly it was not to be for England as South Africa defended solidly when they were on the ropes a couple of times. For the most part though they were in control and dominated the scrums whilst being awarded a fair few penalties in the process. The injury to Kyle Sinckler (who has been magnificent) after just three minutes was a huge loss for us and a big psychological boost for the Springboks.
Rewind back six weeks to the opening weekend and England kicked off their campaign at the Sapporo Dome with a fairly comfortable win over Tonga….and I was lucky to be in attendance with my friend Mostyn. That was great and it proved to be a very eventful 24 hours for me in Hokkaido.
England never really got tested in the group stages as the France match was cancelled due to typhoon Hagibis. However, they saw off Australia with relative ease and then outplayed New Zealand in an amazing semi-final which was quite possibly the greatest ever performance by an England rugby team.
Despite losing their opening game to New Zealand, South Africa were never really likely to exit at the group stages but they did go into the Italy match I was at in Shizuoka needing nothing less than a win to survive. Ultimately, the Springboks ran riot and proceeded to the next round showing the kind of form they displayed in their final warm-up match against Japan pre-tournament.
England may be my team but I do feel very close to Japan’s Brave Blossoms as I’ve been following their fortunes closely ever since I saw them play Samoa about seven years ago. Sadly for me their huge rise in popularity probably means it’ll now be really difficult to see them again. It was a nervy start in the first five minutes of the opening match versus Russia but they came through that and then went on to beat Ireland in the “Shizuoka Shock“.
That match certainly made many fairly uninterested locals stand up and take note and it was a snowball effect from there on (regarding increased TV ratings each time) as they saw off Samoa and then beat Scotland in one of the best matches of the tournament. There were 35 minutes of absolutely breathtaking rugby by the Japanese in that first half. Sadly there was no repeat of World Cup 2015 in the quarter final match against the Springboks but it was neck and neck in that first half. Japan did their country so proud and impressed the rugby-watching world with their displays to be the first Asian team in the last eight.
Sadly I never got round to taking in a match at either of the fan-zones (Fuchu and Yurakucho) in Tokyo but I did go to Marunouchi last week. A small group of people were re-watching England’s phenomenal cup final-like win against the All Blacks whilst opposite that was a giant replica trophy just begging for a selfie.
Behind that was a pop-up rugby cafe which was doing a roaring trade. I didn’t think about it at the time but I really should’ve looked at the menu to see what rugby-based names they’d given to dishes!
A statue of the brilliant Japan captain Michael Leitch has been placed next to one of the benches as part of some art project in the area. This guy of mixed New Zealand and Fijian heritage would definitely make my team of the tournament and his new-found popularity and fame will hopefully help show the potential for a more inclusive definition of Japanese identity.
Other rugby bench art includes Georgian sumo wrestler Tsuyoshi Tochinoshin (excited to see his home country play in the tournament according to the plaque next to him), Japanese figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu and some animated character whose name I forget!
Next to the latter was a rugby shrine with a torii gate designed to look like the goal posts. Even the wooden ema plaques were in the shape of a rugby ball. A giant ball was on the other side of the shrine.
Just down the road in the direction of Tokyo Station was the ‘Rugby World Cup 2019 Japan’ art piece sign displaying the flags of the 20 competing nations.
For this tournament I didn’t take any time off work at all which meant very busy schedules when fitting my live games in. It also meant I couldn’t see as many live TV matches as I’d have liked. Sadly there was no option for English commentary on NHK or NTV (the two terrestrial channels sharing coverage) which must’ve also been frustrating for the thousands and thousands of fans who came to Japan. I hear that it was possible to get English commentary here back in 2002 when Japan co-hosted the FIFA World Cup so why have things regressed since then!!
Of course I managed to see highlights of every match as well as the daily vlog on the World Rugby YouTube channel, and I also enjoyed listening to the Rugby Union Weekly podcast from BBC Radio 5 Live…which, despite the title, was far more regular with it’s episodes.
I may not have got so lucky with seeing so many England games but the ones involving Wales fell more kindly for me and I saw most of their matches with the highlight probably being their scintillating first half display against Australia in their second match which I got to witness in person. The Welsh went on to scrape through against France in the quarter finals before just missing out against South Africa in an incredibly tight semi.
One of the highlights of the Wales-Australia match had nothing really to do with rugby as my friend Matt and I were among a privileged few to see a short three-song set by Manic Street Preachers frontman James Dean Bradfield. I’d only seen the band a couple of days before but this acoustic set was different in style. A short while after that we bumped into drummer Sean Moore which had us absolutely buzzing as we entered the stadium shortly after that. The amount of alcohol consumed before all that probably helped too!!
There was always a very friendly and fun atmosphere around the stations and stadiums for each match. Seeing the convenience stores basically turned into bars was something that I absolutely loved and the Japanese people, especially the staff working outside the stadiums, were so welcoming to all the fans from overseas. In my opinion the following two people really helped add something to this World Cup tournament. Firstly, super-fan Bak-San had his body painted by his wife to resemble the jerseys of all 20 nations at the many, many matches he attended.
Secondly, my friend Mac’s brilliant YouTube videos have really helped to bring the pre-match atmosphere into the homes of the many, many viewers. Click here to see ‘The Journey To England vs South Africa: Rugby World Cup 2019 Final’ video.
The hachimaki headbands were extremely popular with overseas visitors and for the Instagram generation there were always photo opportunities outside the stadiums with a variety of cardboard cut-outs for fans to snap some memories.
The official RWC Megastore outside the west exit of JR Shinjuku Station has been doing a roaring trade with all kinds of great souvenirs and the Brave Blossoms shirts have sold by the truckload and inevitably sold out. Luckily I had no interest in getting one as I was more than happy with my RWC 2015 one.
When I visited towards the end of the tournament, there were lots of generic souvenirs and Ren-G mascot toys but replica shirts were fairly limited and there didn’t seem to be any England-related goods at all. However, if you were a fan of Uruguay, Russia, Canada or Italy then you were in luck. To be fair there were some Ireland and Australia shirts there too but stock had run dry for most of the other top tier nations.
As with the fanzone, there was also a giant replica William Webb Ellis trophy but again I didn’t want to tempt fate by touching it ahead of the final against South Africa. It sadly made no difference and I’ve now witnessed us losing the RWC Final all three times (1991, 2007 & 2019) with the only successful one being in 2003 when I had a mad night out in Roppongi on my first weekend in Japan. I was really hoping it would go full circle but it just wasn’t to be and South Africa were deserved champions.
Click here to read ‘The Highs & Lows Of Watching England’s First Match At The Rugby World Cup In Sapporo’
Click here to read ‘A Manic Sunday As Wales & Australia Met At The Rugby World Cup’
Click here to read ‘Over 5 Hours Of Local Train Travel To Shizuoka Stadium For South Africa vs Italy At The Rugby World Cup’