The rugby environment Springbok fans will encounter at the World Cup in Japan is in marked contrast to that which welcomed Jaco van der Westhuyzen in 2004, when the flyhalf/fullback signed with the NEC Green Rockets.
Back then Japanese rugby was in a state of turmoil, despite some promising performances at the World Cup the previous year. The national team started 2004 with a 19-19 draw with South Korea and finished it with losses at the hands of Scotland (100-8), Romania (25-10) and Wales (98-0).
The newly formed Top League was struggling to draw decent crowds, rugby rarely made it on to TV and any thought of the nation hosting the World Cup would have been laughed at, despite the Japan Rugby Football Union putting out feelers to do just that.
But 15 years on, Japan will host the world’s third-biggest sporting event and does so with a team that has broken into the top 10 of the world rankings.
‘Rugby World Cup fever is well and truly sweeping the nation. The country is gripped with excitement and the Pacific Nations Cup has proved the perfect opener,’ World Rugby Chairman Bill Beaumont said after Japan’s wins over Fiji, Tonga and the United States.
Beaumont went on to say the tournament will make history on and off the field as Asia’s first Rugby World Cup. ‘Records will be broken, from fan-zone attendance to broadcast and engagement. Japan 2019 is already proving to be a transformational driver of sporting and social legacy in the host nation and across Asia.’
What has brought about this turnaround that sees Japan a legitimate contender for a spot in the quarter-finals in a tournament that could be close to a sell-out?
The answer is one of which most South Africans probably do not want reminding: 20 September 2015 is a day that Japanese rugby fans will always remember.
The 34-32 win over South Africa marked the day the Brave Blossoms went from a team best known for its humiliating 145-17 defeat to the All Blacks at the 1995 World Cup to one that had the self-belief to pull off arguably the biggest shock rugby has seen. The victory made Japan the darlings of world rugby and at home the immediate impact was stunning.
Whether it was repeats of Karne Hesketh’s try or clips of schoolchildren and suited men imitating Ayumu Goromaru’s kicking pose, rugby had suddenly become the in-thing. Its timing could not have been better, because it saved Japan from perhaps an even more humiliating defeat than that hammering suffered at the hands of New Zealand in Bloemfontein.
Relations between the JRFU and World Rugby had soured considerably two months before the start of RWC 2015 with the news that the new national stadium would not be ready in time to host the 2019 tournament.
World Rugby felt they had been lied to and while they publicly agreed to the JRFU’s revised road map for the tournament, plans were being put in place to ensure another country was ready to act as host should Japan have the rights taken away.
To add to Japan’s worries, preparations for the Sunwolves’ inaugural season had not gone to plan and there were whispers from Sanzar (as it was known then) that the team may be scrapped before it had even played a game.
Of course, all talk of taking anything away from Japan disappeared after the ‘Brighton miracle’.
And while interest in the sport at a national level dropped soon after the Brave Blossoms returned – much to the anger of the players – the rugby family in Japan were rejuvenated.
Still, there were worries about Japan as hosts, with ticket sales a particular concern, not to mention the rather soulless atmosphere that often existed at league games. But the introduction of the Sunwolves in 2016 was to change things dramatically.
Freed from the shackles of supporting a team based on sponsor-company loyalty, Japanese fans were suddenly not afraid to show their passion, making Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground one of the most popular destinations on the annual Super Rugby circuit.
Visiting players were amazed at the hospitality and kindness of the local supporters and that will be evident during the World Cup.
Former Japan captain Toshiaki Hirose has been instrumental in setting up Scrum Unison, a group that teaches Japanese people the national anthems of the 19 other participating teams.
A record 38 000 applied for 10 000 places on the volunteer programme for the tournament, with an extra 3 000 eventually taken on to what has been dubbed ‘Team No-Side’.
And while many of the local fans are new to the game, there are more than enough die-hard fans to ensure there will be plenty of Japanese drinking partners for the more than 400 000 foreign fans expected to travel there.
Organisers have said this is a ‘once in a lifetime’ event and it will be, for all concerned.
Whether it be taking a two-car, single track train to Kumamoto Stadium or watching a game at the hi-tech Sapporo Dome, Japan will be a unique host and a welcome breath of fresh air for fans who want a rugby experience different from their normal Six Nations or Rugby Championship travels.
After all, at how many rugby stadiums in the world can you eat ‘fried squid legs’ or ‘octopus balls’ washed down by cold beer brought to you in your seat?
– The Springboks open their World Cup campaign in Yokohama, the birth place of most things Western in Japan, including rugby.
– Asia’s oldest rugby club – Yokohama Country & Athletic Club – can be found on a hill close to the city’s Chinatown and the Noge area, home to around 500 bars and izakayas and the best place to get an idea of what the Japanese get up to after dark.
– Rassie Erasmus and his men then travel to Aichi Prefecture to play in Toyota City, a town synonymous with the car company. Not the greatest place to visit in terms of nightlife, fans would be better off staying in Nagoya, which is 55 minutes away by train.
– Shizuoka, which hosts the Boks’ game against Italy, is famous for its tea and being home to the iconic Mount Fuji. The prefecture also has a number of hot springs on the Izu Peninsula and at Lake Hamanako, the perfect way to relax before heading west for the final pool game.
– Kobe is western Japan’s equivalent of Yokohama and is well known for its beef and sake distilleries. The city is also close to Kyoto and Nara, two of Japan’s top sightseeing spots, and also home to Andries Bekker, Andy Ellis and Dan Carter.
Photo: Steve Haag Sports via Hollywoodbets