Sideline Cut: Opportunity for rugby to sow seeds in Land of the Rising Sun
Japan as a country is devoted to custom and ritual yet its rugby team play with adventure
A Japanese fan cheering for his team prior to the opening match of the World Cup between Japan and Russia in Tokyo. Photograph: EPA/Franck Robichon
The loneliest cat in Tokyo? He’s standing on the roof of a vintage police van in full uniform just outside Tobitakyu railway station on this muggy Friday afternoon speaking into a megaphone. He is explaining, in both groovy Japanese and halting English, that the flying of drones over the stadiums at the Rugby World Cup is not cool: in fact, it is strictly prohibited.
Thousands of locals drift by in Blossoms shirts, too engrossed in their phones and the excitement of the hour to pay him any heed. Tokyo has shown up for the rugby.
Gamely the policeman sticks to his task, a one-man crusade against the overhead panoramic shots that would infringe on the rights of the World Cup.
Yet the truth is that the old game could use every bit of promotion that it gets in Japan over the next five weeks, prohibited or not. There is a peculiar sense in Tokyo that even while the national rugby team is anxious to prove their worth and appeal to a willing home audience over the next month, this is a fleeting opportunity for rugby to establish a more steadfast fan base in the Land of the Rising Sun.
The Japanese have been giving rugby union a shot for well over a century, and even if its citizens have yet to become fully convinced of the wisdom or appeal of wedging their heads into the darker recesses of the scrum, the hope is that they remain open to persuasion.
The idea of giving this tournament to Japan some 10 years ago was exotic and left field, and on Friday in the city it felt visionary. It felt like this weekend could take off, from the celebratory aspect of the opening event in Tokyo to the thunderous clash of New Zealand and South Africa in Yokohama on Saturday.
Since 1987, rugby has felt its way through the very notion of a “world” cup through blind faith and increasing confidence. But it has involved an act of wilful make believe too.
The Tri-Nations could rely on superbly competitive games featuring the best teams in the world, and even in its drabbest era the Five and Six Nations winters had the backbone of a century of claustrophobic tradition and rivalry to give them substance.
Yet these are essentially local squabbles. The idea of staging rugby as a world sport has taken ambition and confidence, and if it was on safe ground in England four years ago and New Zealand in 2011, bringing the tournament to Japan was a more audacious step.
Tokyo is already completing preparations for next year’s Olympic Games, less a sports festival now than a cult of wealth with the tradition and money and power to make its presence felt in any city.
And Japan has already been a successful joint host of the original World Cup, football’s summer jamboree. So the fear and risk of the Japanese remaining politely quizzical or indifferent about rugby’s arrival is the big gamble.
One of the unspoken aspects of the Rugby World Cup is that it brings about a ghostly reunion of the former outposts of empire. In this strange and desperate era for British politics and identity, perhaps the most powerful illustration of the former global reach of the empire is the raging popularity of both cricket and rugby in those former colonies.
In Japan rugby experienced a heady early rush of popularity during trading relations with Britain without ever gaining traction. The country ultimately fell headlong for the more intricate rhythms and hipper connotations of baseball, sumo and the global fascination with football.
Rugby has lasted here as it has done through most of the world: in hardy and rarefied pockets.
You only had to see Bill Beaumont, the World Rugby chairman, rumbling on to the strobe-lit pitch in Tokyo on Friday night to be reminded of how far the game has come. In his post-playing life Beaumont had settled into a role as the gruff and caustic captain of A Question of Sport to liven up BBC Tuesday nights in England, only to find himself here as chairman of world rugby and telling a stadium full of receptive Japanese fans that “you are the best hosts”.
And there was no doubt that they were up for that. On the way into the stadium I bumped into Ian, a Scotsman out of St Andrews now living in Japan, who was attending the game with his wife Chihara and their son Ricky. There is no disguising that rugby is a comparatively fringe sport in the country yet their Japanese friends had over the past few days begun to sit up and take notice of the fact that this exotic foreign game would be making its home here for the next month.
And why wouldn’t world rugby want the game to catch fire in Japan, with its vivid colours and a thrilling interpretation of the way that the game should be played. It’s a beautiful contradiction that in a country devoted to custom and ritual their representatives on the rugby field give themselves over to an expression that is free-style, adventurous and carefree.
The strange thing about Japan is that they’ve managed to give the Rugby World Cup its most hallucinatory experience when they broke through the realm of the senses by beating the Springboks in an all-time thriller four years ago.
More than any World Cup rugby nation they offered tangible proof that the sport can grow, and that it need not always be the usual showdown by the heavyweight custodians of the sport.
So the mood among the hugely partisan local crowd in this quiet suburb in the west of the city was to give the team a chance.
It was a good moment to see Richie McCaw raise the Webb Ellis trophy aloft and then leave it up for grabs.
And to think of the All-Blacks and Boks kicking back in their hotels on the far side of the city watching Japan and Russia, nouveau countries at the old game, get this jamboree started.
A hundred things could go wrong for the Rugby World Cup over the next month, but it began with its Japanese dream.
And not a single drone overhead.