The eclectic World Cup experience in Japan has exceeded expectations of players and fans, writes JON CARDINELLI in SA Rugby Magazine.
The press conference at the City of Toyota Stadium was over. Rassie Erasmus, however, had something important to say, and asked the broadcasters and reporters from around the world to remain a moment longer to hear him out.
‘We want to thank all the Japanese people for making this one of the best experiences of our lives,’ the Bok coach said. ‘This country should be proud of its facilities and the way it has hosted this World Cup. From the Boks, we just want to thank the people for going out of their way on a daily basis. The support we’ve enjoyed at training sessions and on match days has been terrific and has made our stay in Japan truly special.’
Earlier that day, the Boks beat Namibia 57-3 to record their first win of the campaign. The players did a lap of honour after the match to thank the fans for making the occasion one to remember. When they came together on the halfway line, they linked arms and bowed to the crowd.
It’s been interesting to see how big the Boks are in Japan. In the lead-up to the opening game against the All Blacks, I bumped into a small crowd of local fans when I was leavinga training session in Urayasu. The session was closed, but the fans were determined to sneak a glimpse of their South African heroes.
A boy who couldn’t have been more than 10 years old was waving a South African flag. An older man took me aside to tell me he was good friends with former Cheetahs and Lions flank Willie Britz, who now plays for the Shining Arcs and Sunwolves in Japan. ‘I hope the Boks do well,’ he said.
Change was in the air in the hours leading up to the opening game of the tournament between Japan and Russia. The Springbok players felt it as they walked from their hotel to Shibuya Crossing and then through to Hachiko Square.
A giant billboard featuring Siya Kolisi, Eben Etzebeth and Beast Mtawarira looked over the crossing. In Hachiko Square, the statue of Japan’s most-loved dog was draped in the colours of the Brave Blossoms. It was a sign the Japanese had taken rugby into their hearts and that Asia’s first World Cup tournament had well and truly arrived.
‘You can feel the excitement when you walk across Shibuya Crossing,’ Kolisi said. ‘The vibe around the city is incredible and it’s special to be a part of it. I really hope this tournament lifts the whole country.’
The trains heading to Tokyo Stadium were packed with fans wearing the same cherry-and-white jerseys. Not all of them were Japanese, though. I spoke to a few South Africans outside Tobitakyu Station who said the Brave Blossoms are their second team.
Japan received the loudest cheer of the evening when the team was introduced at the opening ceremony. The locals welcomed past World Cup winners such as South Africa with a roar and then showed their appreciation for two-time champion Richie McCaw when the former All Blacks skipper walked out to the halfway line holding the Webb Ellis Cup aloft.
The following day, thousands of Springbok and All Blacks fans flooded the streets between Shin-Yokohama Station and the Yokohama Stadium. A man wearing a pair of Springbok horns on his head and a South African flag on his back told me what the tournament meant to Japan and why the Boks needed a World Cup title victory.
‘I came from Cape Town to Japan to make a new life for myself,’ he said. His Japanese wife and daughter smiled at him. ‘This is a great opportunity for the country because I don’t think many rugby people know much about Japan.
‘A win would be good for South Africa, especially if you think about all that has happened there recently,’ he added, referring to several violent incidents in early September that shook the country.
‘I remember what happened at the 1995 World Cup with President Nelson Mandela. It was rugby that brought the country together. We were able to put aside black and white. We were able to celebrate the Boks’ big win.
‘When I think about what’s happening in South Africa at the moment, I believe we really need a win here at the World Cup to unite us again as a country.’
The mood changed when the Boks moved to Nagoya before their second pool match against Namibia. The local support for the team, however, was just as prominent. Thousands braved the stifling heat and humidity to attend an open training session in Ichinomiya. When the South African media arrived on site before the Bok team, we were mistaken for the players.
One man wearing a Bok jersey older than some of the current players asked if we could sort him out with a 2019 World Cup shirt. He wouldn’t accept our explanation that we were writers and demanded that we pose for photographs.
The fans treated the training session as if it were a match. Every training drill was cheered. Whenever a high ball was smartly collected, or whenever a long, flat pass set up Makazole Mapimpi or Cheslin Kolbe for a break down the touchline, a collective ‘Ahhhhh’ swept across the ground.
The reaction from the Japanese fans was on another level, though, in the wake of the ‘Sensation in Shizuoka’.
Japan beat Ireland to take control of Pool A and move to a record-high of eighth in the World Rugby rankings. The game drew the largest domestic audience for a rugby match and the largest live audience of the year with an audience share of 22.4% on NHK at prime time in Japan. According to World Rugby, it occupied the top five trends on Twitter in Japan, while it was also a top trend in Ireland and the UK, among others.
Total video views on Rugby World Cup’s Japanese Twitter account exceeded 8.2 million, there were over 700 000 uses of the official hashtags around the match and views of highlights on World Rugby’s YouTube channel topped one million within hours. The largest single-day Rugby World Cup fanzone attendance saw more than 120 000 fans enjoy the experience the length and breadth of the nation, creating incredible imagery that went viral in Japan.
‘This tournament is shaping up to be something very special on and off the field,’ said World Rugby chairman Sir Bill Beaumont. ‘Japan’s victory has excited a nation and captured the imagination of the world with exceptional social and digital media reaction. This tournament is big in Japan.’
The bars and restaurants en route to the City of Toyota Stadium were packed with local and international fans. While most of the foreigners had come to watch the Springbok-Namibia clash, they were thrilled to be in the country for the Brave Blossoms’ biggest victory since the shock win against South Africa at the 2015 World Cup.
‘What a privilege,’ said one fan in a Bok jersey. The mood was no less festive in the press centre at the stadium. Japanese journalists and even a few local volunteers in World Rugby kit could be seen punching the air in delight.
Erasmus was thrilled to see Japan succeed. The Bok coach stopped just short of saying ‘I told you so’ when he was asked about the hosts’ stunning win later that evening.
‘We played Japan a few weeks ago in the buildup to the World Cup. We won 41-7 but I said afterwards that the scoreline was not a true reflection of the game.
‘I said back then that we might end up playing Japan in the World Cup quarter-finals. Obviously there was a lot hinging on that game between Ireland and Japan, but I knew Japan had a realistic chance of winning that game and the game against Scotland to top their pool.
‘Japan should be proud of the way they’ve embraced visiting teams like the Boks and how they’ve hosted this tournament. They should also be very proud of their team.’
– This article first appeared in the November issue of SA Rugby Magazine, now on sale