Chris Waterman examines Japan’s recent love affair with rugby and with their own team the Sunwolves.
Few genuine rugby fans will have forgotten watching in disbelief as Karne Hesketh dived over on 84 minutes to claim victory for the Brave Blossoms against the Springboks and thereby ignite last year’s Rugby World Cup, and although the Japanese narrowly failed to qualify for the knock-out stages of the competition their unquestionable success has led to a nation falling in love with the sport.
However, will the love affair continue is Japanese rugby able to build upon this and can they become a true global force in the sport?
The inclusion of a Tokyo based franchise, the Sunwolves, super-japanrugby.com/en/ in the Super XV’s where they are pitched against established teams from Australia, Argentina, South Africa and New Zealand has helped the momentum but it has been anything than an easy start.
Seven games played, seven games lost, points scored 144, conceded 294 and with the recent 92-17 defeat against the Cheetahs from South Africa rightly drawing scathing criticism questions are already being asked about the future of the side. Whilst nobody expected silverware from their first season in arguably the toughest club competition of its type these mid-point stats are making it increasingly difficult to paint a positive picture however even if 0/7 becomes 0/15 there are mitigating circumstances that need to be understood and many reasons to continue the support of rugby in Japan.
Clearly the Sunwolves were outclassed in every facet of the game against the team from Bloemfontein exposing weaknesses in physicality, speed and experience but coming 24 hours after a 7.2 earthquake had rocked the southern prefecture of Kumamoto perhaps the players’ minds were elsewhere. Up until this game three of their previous six defeats had been to a five point margin or less proving they can compete at this level.
The team itself is not drawn from the usual seasoned pool of rugby professionals that their competitors take for granted; of the 34 squad players less than half have test experience. Yes 10 represented their country in that famous defeat of South Africa but the remainder is drawn from provincial players from other countries which clearly results in communication issues on the pitch.
Logistics are hardly working in their favor as well with the squad being away from Tokyo 83 days out of 140 taking 15 flights longer than seven hours, including a three-week trip to South Africa and when they are in Japan they have to make use of other teams training facilities until they can create enough following and therefore revenue to purchase or build their own.
In Mark Hammett they have a seasoned rugby expert boasting a wealth of experience at club and country level in New Zealand and few can legitimately say he has not led the team well given the hand he has been dealt, but it was his comments at an early press conference about how vital the creation of local support and enthusiasm for the team would be for its survival that remain true; and here there is positive news.
The two home games held to date at the wonderfully titled Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium in Tokyo (their other “home” games being played in Singapore) have been virtual sell outs with attendances around the 20,000 mark and the whole experience of attending a game is one that I would defy even those with no interest in rugby (clearly of dubious character) not to enjoy.
As you approach the ground you are tempted by a variety of stalls selling the usual high quality Japanese fare – yakitori, bowls of steaming ramen, deep fried tonkatsu – all washed down with local beer and of course sake. Upon entering the stadium you are handed a beautifully folded and packaged Sunwolves branded towel by a bowing member of staff so you can dry your seat due to the inclement conditions of the day. Crowd behavior as you would expect is exemplary with every scoring play, even that of the opposition, being politely clapped and at the final whistle of the 35-9 defeat to Melbourne Rebels in March the vast majority of the crowd stayed behind in the pouring rain for at least 45 minutes so that they could cheer the team’s lap of “honor” and pose for photographs with their heroes.
Clearly good noodles, cold beer and pre-planning against a down pour are not enough and results need to improve otherwise even the most dedicated support will begin to dwindle. The JRFU must also do they part in promoting grass-roots rugby but if we have learnt anything from the events at the RWC it is that when the Japanese commit to doing something whilst it will take time they generally succeed and do so with style and grace.
I therefore close with an appeal to the global rugby family. Nobody expects and nor should the sporting press go easy when reporting the on-field performances of the team but balancing it with the difficult circumstances in which this fledgling side have begun their journey would help. If Japan feels it is becoming embarrassed by its representation in the competition it will withdraw as this is not culturally acceptable therefore I ask that if you are able to attend a Sunwolves match wherever it might be please go along to show your support and if it is in Tokyo remember – there’s always a free towel in it for you!