Rugby World Cup: Push comes to shove as endgame approaches

The Tokyo Tower lit up in the colours of the Brave Blossoms during the Rugby World Cup in Japan. Photograph:  Clive Rose/World Rugby via Getty Images

Hamacho is one of the sleepier pockets of Tokyo but it still houses arguably the city’s most exotic sight. Just a three minute walk from the train station, along the wide footpaths where young parents ferry children to school on bicycles as the coffee shops are still setting up for the morning, you take a sharp left through an alleyway and there, just past the neatly arranged bins and beside the bicycle rack you will see, sometime after seven in the morning, the sumo wrestlers from the Arashio stable.

When you think of Japanese sport, it is the gargantuan yokozuna crouched down on the dohyo that overshadows everything else. In a modern world, sumo remains wonderfully intransigent and apart.

It’s Japan’s sport and it has 1500 years tradition behind it and its why five wrestlers in the Arashio stable are going through their paces as a small, transfixed crowd watches on through the open windows that are like a viewing gallery into the street-level room.

It’s a mild day so you can smell the incense, hear their flesh smack together, see the clay rise and hear their breathing labour and grow urgent as they go through a series of set pieces and intermittent push-ups and stretches.

They are big, big men and phenomenally agile and of course, during this Rugby World Cup, it’s impossible not to imagine how that physical dexterity and momentum would have been channelled had these men been born in parts of New Zealand or South Africa or Dublin. In the 46 stables dotted across Japan, there must be the making of a world class front-row.

Wrestlers at the Arashio sumo stable in Tokyo. Photograph: Mirco Lazzari gp/Getty Images
Wrestlers at the Arashio sumo stable in Tokyo. Photograph: Mirco Lazzari gp/Getty Images

But to become a wrestler is still deeply entwined with the Japanese sense of honour and despite the fact that the severe physical demands of the sumo existence shortens a life span, despite their earning less than mainstream athletes and the austere existence - wrestlers live here together as single men with a hierarchy that is military, with the lowest ranking apprentices doing the dog’s share of cooking and cleaning - it’s a life with meaning and distinction. After an hour of practice, the senior wrestlers pad out into the street and pose for photographs with the tourists as their house cat watches on with supreme indifference.

A few hours after this fabulous spectacle in Hamacho, Sir William Blackledge Beaumont from Chorley, Lancashire made a scheduled media appearance in downtown Tokyo. In what seems like another lifetime now, Beaumont was a kind of yokozuno of uncompromising England packs of the Thatcherite era: a gruff and uncompromising pack leader who captained England to the 1980 Grand Slam in that time when forwards were expected to be muddy, bloodied and always just one more four-metre ball carry away from a cardiac arrest.

Beaumont wears the trappings of office lightly: he sports neither a tie nor an air of officiousness. He remains so indelibly associated with his years on A Question of Sport, BBC’s long running quiz show, that it is disconcerting to see him at a table now without a buzzer in front of him, snapping to pithily answer a question about Lester Piggott. But like rugby, Beaumont has travelled far through the professional age and his old television persona skills serve him well now in his role as the front man for world rugby.

Tourists watch on through the open windows of the Arashio sumo stable. Photograph: Mirco Lazzari gp/Getty Images
Tourists watch on through the open windows of the Arashio sumo stable. Photograph: Mirco Lazzari gp/Getty Images

From the impending disaster caused by last week’s typhoon somehow emerged a story of sporting triumph: the critical game in Yokohama was played and the fairytale of this tournament continues with Japan’s daring streak. Now, the weather has turned cooler: it was raining across Tokyo on Thursday afternoon as both Steve Hansen and Joe Schmidt gave what, for one man at least, will be their final team announcement as head coach.

After a mazy, slow-burning month, the sprawling tournament is reaching its endgame. By Sunday evening, there will be just four teams remaining. The presence of seven of those teams was fully expected. But Japan’s stunning presentation of a national team with enormous potential has introduced a new conversation. Maybe it’s the intoxicating effect of Japan’s fearless brand of rugby but the idea of the Blossoms as part of what would be a Seven Nations championship has been openly discussed. It was raised here and put to several of Japan’s players during their appearances over the week. They smiled and made encouraging noises but said very little. Beaumont was quick to agree that World Rugby would have “no hesitation” in bringing the tournament back to Japan and stressed how far the game has come in a relatively short time.

“If you look following the world rugby San Francisco agreement which was about two years ago now, we have in excess of 30 per cent more matches between tier one and two. Let’s all remember that the reason why countries are called tier one and two is not because of performance, it’s a historical thing because they play in a major tournament on an annual basis - the Rugby Championship which has four teams and the Six Nations, which has six. But I think currently the Japanese ranking is seven. When you have beaten the team that is two, you sit up and take notice. That is what we are trying to do in world rugby.”

So yes, Japan have made everyone sit up and take notice. Of course, there is the nagging sense that their performance here is a kind of magic concocted by place and circumstance. It is one thing for Japan to thrill the nation and the sport here, camped together for months and building towards this and backed by their hugely vocal home support. It is another to land into the bear pit of Cardiff or ominous Twickenham on bitter February Saturday’s after a 10-hour flight and jet lag and facing into a cold and hostile 80 minutes.

Japan have made everyone sit up and take notice.
Japan have made everyone sit up and take notice.

How sustainable would it be? How realistic would it be for the old European teams to commit to a game in Tokyo or Fukuoka every second year? Against that, if rugby is serious about broadening the number of elite countries, will it ever have a better chance of elevating Japan’s status than right now? These are the thoughts and conversations that will be flitting about the minds of rugby people this weekend, as the planes arrive in Haneda airport carrying South African and Irish and New Zealand fans who had booked for the knockout stage of the tournament in the happy conviction that their team would be there.

They’ll ferry themselves into the bewildering neon heartbeat of the city and soon understand how difficult it is for rugby union to make its presence felt throughout the various wards. There have been no rugby games since last Sunday night now and despite the deluge of press conferences that the competing teams are obliged to host, the tournament felt quiet over the week. Already, the quarter-finals at the other end of the country feel as though they belong to a different tournament.

The arriving fans in Tokyo will take a day or two to get their heads around the scale of the city and the volume of people moving through them at any one hour. They’ll be struck by the mind-boggling profusion of restaurants and street food joints. Much of Tokyo life happens far above your head, with huge bars and eateries located eight and nine floors up. Down side alleys are countless little-more-than-shacks open-cooking every conceivable part of a chicken or pig you care to think of and other parts that you probably don’t.

Today’s quarter-final between Ireland and New Zealand could be Joe Schmdt’s last as Irish head coach. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Today’s quarter-final between Ireland and New Zealand could be Joe Schmdt’s last as Irish head coach. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

There are an estimated 160,000 restaurants in the city. And at least three of those are vegan. There 49 official skyscrapers, 18 billionaires out of 39 million people and - this is just a rough head count - about 35 pet dogs. The western phenomenon of dogs on leashes has yet to reach here. It’s just a different city. So on one level Tokyo, let alone the rest of Japan, is a vast and glittering backdrop for rugby to showcase itself. But the danger is that the game becomes eaten up by the contours and noises and colours of the city.

For all of rugby is local. You have to keep reminding yourself of that. In the Conrad hotel, one of a series of New Brutalism marvels in the Shiodome area of the city. Steve Hansen was in slightly reflective mood as he sat down on Thursday for what will be, regardless of what happens in Tokyo stadium, his final time to face Ireland as New Zealand coach. It would be wrong to say he struck a valedictory note: Hansen is too sharp and wry to ever allow that but he did, fleetingly, give a glimpse behind the curtain to the world of professional rugby.

“It’s no different from players. Through competition you earn the respect from them and they earn yours. You understand the trials and tribulations that they go through and the pressure they’re under. We get the odd opportunity to meet each other away from the battlefield. They’re like minded people and they’re trying to improve a team they’re in charge of and make the most of their time with those athletes.

“We have caught up with the Irish guys plenty of time in Dublin. We know Andy well, and Joe and Greg Feek. Simon Easterby I know from my time in Wales. If you are around long enough you get to know them. But when you get to the park we go for it for 80 minutes then afterwards you just have to accept what happens.”

The All Blacks remain the global face of rugby union.
The All Blacks remain the global face of rugby union.

That’s the thing. Rugby union has made itself global by its willingness, particularly during the happy-go-lucky amateur era, of its leading lights to embark on hugely impractical and Corinthian tours of the further reaches, disappearing from regular life for months, sometimes, to chase rugby games against new blood. The contemporary World Cup is the professional reflection of those old tours, with the inevitable lustre of marketing and the increasingly banal press conferences. But Hansen’s point rang true across the city.

Hang around long enough and sooner or later, you get to meet and know the others. Across town, Rassie Erasmus, in a hotel just a five minute walk from the relentlessly, furious hive of Shinjuku station, was cheerfully and courteously explaining how he planned to bring Japan’s end to a shuddering halt on Sunday night. He talked about how the Springboks had already been together for 17 weeks and hoped that they would be together for another three.

He spoke with sincerity about the difficult choices that were made. As he talked, several of South Africa’s most powerful rugby players sat waiting in the wings for their turn to answer questions. One of those was Steven Kitshoff, the Somerset West loosehead prop who has become the most easily distinctive Springbok in any game, with a sun freckled face and the most vivid red hair seen anywhere since John Hinde last produced his Irish dream land posters. Kitshoff will not start against Japan but he already knows, probably down to the minute, when he will come in. He scrolled through his phone waiting to answer the questions he has heard before. If he was disappointed not to start, he has dealt with it. He is, after all, a professional athlete.

If South Africa becomes one of the teams gone from the tournament on Sunday night, then rugby will be the lead story across Japan’s dark, beautiful interior that night. However temporary, it will be a wonder. And if Ireland are still in the tournament on Sunday night, it will cause huge tremors through the rugby establishment and perhaps not an in a good way. The All Blacks are, after all, the global face of rugby union: their name and reputation carries recognition that transcends the sport and they are seeking their third Webb Ellis trophy in a row. There’s a sense that this season of rugby in Japan is building towards something monumental. Will they even watch the games in the Arashio stable on Saturday and Sunday night, on the television in their communal living space? And if so, will they recognise in Ireland the fierce need of the underdog?

They’ve an expression in sumo circles in Japan for the feeling you get before the last day of the tournament: senshuraku.

The pleasure of a thousand autumns.

It’s what Schmidt and Hansen and all of them are chasing now.