All powerful All Black brand captures imagination in Japan
World champions facing amateur players seems attractive as well as absurd
New Zealand’s Sam Whitelock takes a selfie with the crowd after their victory over Namibia in their Rugby World Cup match at Tokyo Stadium. Photo: Franck Robichon/Getty Images
New Zealand are such masters of their own image that not only do they use the Land of the Long White Cloud as a striking motif for their rugby landscape, they seem to able to bring the damn thing along with them as a kind of background prop. It was grey and overcast on Sunday morning in Tokyo as the All Blacks blew through town. Namibia against New Zealand is probably the game that gets to the essence of the Rugby World Cup. On one level, the idea of Namibia on the same field as New Zealand is hugely attractive. But on another, it seems absurd.
Namibia are ranked 23rd in the world. And in truth, they are probably a century behind the All Blacks on the rugby field. Their team still contains amateurs and eight of their players had to get time off their day jobs in order to come and play here in Japan. Rugby has a tradition there dating back to the early 1900s but it still lacks a system. The notion of the All Blacks in full flow against a nouveau international nation was frightening.
And duly, it finished 71-9. The All Blacks ran in 11 tries. The last of those, started and finished by TJ Perenara who made a break from deep in his own half and then recovered from a tackle to take a breathtaking wraparound reverse pass from Brad Weber to essay a brilliantly athletic finish in the corner, was a marvel.
“I was off my seat actually,” admitted Namibia’s coach Phil Davies, the former Wales second-row warrior of the 1980s.
“With the effort of our tackling but also with Perenara’s effort to get in in the corner. As a rugby man through and through, it was a good game to be involved in.”
Namibia had won their first ever Test match just this year against Uruguay. But for a full half hour in Tokyo, they somehow managed to suspend reality. They had the audacity to take a brief lead against New Zealand, when Damian Stevens, their tiger of a scrumhalf, booted an early penalty. They had a game outhalf in Helarius Kisting and a machine in the lineout in Tjiuee Uanivi, the former Glasgow Warriors signing who claimed a game-high nine. And they made 145 tackles over the 80 minutes, thumping only shadows with another 40 attempts as the All-Blacks began to dance and ghost around them. The most stunning fact of the day was that the score was 10-9 after 30 minutes of the game. The world champions had rested Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga among others, but this still felt surreal.
Through this World Cup, the All Blacks brand has been more noticeable and high profile than the tournament itself. Their brand and that jersey transcend the sport and there seems to be more Japanese walking around Tokyo with New Zealand jerseys than Blossoms shirts. There was a big local attendance for this game. They wanted to see this phenomenon up close. They wanted to see the Haka. They expected to see an onslaught of dazzling All Blacks try from the beginning, too. But the alternative – the sight of Namibia standing up to the most powerful rugby organisation on earth – won them over after 15 minutes. From then on, all anybody in the stadium wanted was a Namibia try. Everyone expect Steve Hansen, who was unmoved by the romance of the afternoon.
“We didn’t turn up with the right attitude and allowed Namibia to partake more than they should have. That’s not been disrespectful to Namibia,” he said afterwards.
“I think when you have a short turnaround of four days and you have to have two soft runarounds it is easy to turn up not physically right. When the opposition – which happens every time we play – are right up for the game, it can look ugly. It is a good reminder that every time you play you have to get yourself in the right head space.”
There will always be a bit of the hard-bitten cop about Hansen. He wasn’t about to sit down and gush about Namibia. His job is to perpetuate the levels of excellence New Zealand demands of itself. In the second half, with the Namibians tiring, the inevitable procession of All Blacks scores occurred. Jordi Barrett played number 10 for the day and offered a stunning exhibition of the scope of rugby talent within the Barrett family. “It’s certainly not his number one position,” said Hansen. “So for him to come out and play as he did, he should be very excited.” After the weekend, a quarter-final dream meeting between Japan and New Zealand is coming in to sharper focus. Hansen nodded when that was put to him.
“Japan are playing very good rugby. They are exciting to watch. The crowd are behind them. I haven’t thought about them playing the All Blacks because it would be remiss of me to look too far ahead. But it would be a heck of a game from a crowd point of view and all those great Japanse supporters who seem to get behind us might put on a red and white jersey for that one. But I am really enjoying the fact that Japan are having a great tournament because it is great for rugby in this country. And one of the aims aside from finding a world champion is to be able to promote the game. The game is bigger than all of us and long may they play well.”