Japan hoping to maintain momentum with win over Samoa
The Japanese public has taken to devouring rugby stories as it gets to know its heroes
Japan prop Isileli Nakajima (left) celebrates victory over Ireland at the Ecopa stadium in Shizuoka. Photograph: William West/AFP/Getty Images
Kick-off: 11.30am Irish time, Saturday. Venue: City of Toyota stadium. How to follow: The Irish Times liveblog will begin at 11am. On TV: Live on Eir Sport.
Jimmy Breslin used to pop the cork of his weekly column with the line about their being eight million stories in the naked city and this was one of them.
“The loosehead prop is a great story,” says Kobelco Steelers head coach Dave Dillon. “Isileli Nakajima was our number eight. Steve Cumberland, our forwards coach, mentioned him to Jamie Joseph – a fantastic number eight, his leg speed was becoming more like a prop’s. At age 30 loosehead might give him some longevity. So he’s only been playing loosehead prop since January.”
That’s not supposed to be possible.
“It’s not, but then you meet the fella.”
The Tongan is one of many stories the public are devouring as they get to know their heroes. The wonder is how rugby maintains its perch in the bulging consciousness of Japanese sport.
“The companies,” Dillon, a nuggety Kiwi openside who once upon a time played AIL, explains over ice coffee outside Tully’s on Rokko Island last Monday after his pre-season was launched with a training belt against Ireland.
“Our club is part of Kobe Steel. I go home to New Zealand and people ask me how long we are going. I look at them and say 92 years. This is a company. Steel workers. And they have had a rugby team for 92 years. So it is embedded. You get around the factories to see the people you are representing.”
Dillon’s Steelers are the current Top League champions, with Dan Carter inching back to being their starting 10 after neck surgery.
“We are getting younger players now coming out of universities. The club has linked with the Chiefs in New Zealand.”
That’s why Wayne Smith is their current director of rugby and how DIllon got the job.
“I’ve done a lot in the talent ID area. I’m actually going into the university tonight to do a scrum session with a guy who has to choose with us and another company. That’s where the talent is. A lot of them have done martial arts. That makes them naturally physical and strong. Wrestlers and judo in particular.”
It’s similar to Irish sport in the sense that Japanese rugby is like the Australian Football League team picking off young Gaelic footballers.
“It’s a bit like Ireland. Football and baseball are the football and hurling. Rugby is quite big in high schools depending on where you are. Hanazono – where Tonga played Argentina the other day – every year over two weeks the best players from the entire province come and play in a tournament. You see some exceptional players.”
Still, rugby remains way down the pecking order. After beating Ireland at the Ecopa stadium at least the struggle is real.
“One of the limitations – and this is a broad statement –- but they specialise quite early. You see it with hurling. My oldest daughter is into her second year in high school in New Zealand, and she has done five or six sports already, just trying to find what she has a passion for. Here you commit to one and you are entrenched in it.
“Yu Tamura, I was lucky to coach him at NEC and he’s a good man, but he’s different, you can see it. He comes from a football and baseball background.”
Ireland’s twin torturers, hooker Shota Horie and winger Kenki Fukuoka, who now owns Japan’s most famous try, drop to the bench against Samoa as the centre of the rugby universe, for one night only, is Toyota City.
Behind their teams
“We have four players in the squad now,” says Dillon. “I love Ireland because of the people involved. I loved the country when I lived there, but – you saw it the other night – Japanese people get behind their teams. Every baseball stadium is sold out every Saturday and Sunday. They are very, very passionate about their country.
“Coaching our Japanese boys is just fantastic. They never give up. They just go about their business. They turn up prepared and go every session. They work and work. You know they will be 100 per cent prepared, and they will just keep coming. The passion you get from the boys is pretty cool to observe.”
Everyone in Irish rugby observed it. Now to repeat it against Samoa and watch the entire country catch fire.
JAPAN: Ryohei Yamanaka; Kotaro Matsushima, Timothy Lafaele, Ryoto Nakamura, Lomano Lemeki; Yu Tamura, Yutaka Nagare; Keita Inagaki, Atsushi Sakate, Jiwon Koo; Wimpie van der Walt, James Moore; Michael Leitch, Pieter Labuschagne (capt), Kazuki Himeno. Replacements: Shota Horie, Isileli Nakajima, Asaeli Ai Valu, Uwe Helu, Hendrik Tui, Fumiaki Tanaka, Rikiya Matsuda, Kenki Fukuoka.
SAMOA: Tim Nanai-Williams; Ah See Tuala, Alapati Leiua, Henry Taefu, Ed Fidow; Ulupano Seuteni, Dwayne Polataivao; Jordan Lay, Seilala Lam, Michael Alaalatoa; Piula Faasalele, Kane Le’aupepe; Chris Vui, TJ Ioane, Jack Lam (capt). Replacements: Ray Niuia, Paul Alo-Emile, James Lay , Senio Toleafoa, Josh Tyrell, Pele Cowley, Tusi Pisi, Kieron Fonotia.
Referee: Jaco Peyper (RSA).