The community service portion of the Five Nations Dream Tournament saw the touring clubs split into groups and sent to various Japanese public schools to do some simple rugby demos and be generally well received by attentive, engaged children.
This author was dispatched with half a dozen tour mates to a Tokyo middle school, where we were all provided with general-issue slippers and given warm greetings by staff, then brought into a staff room, where the blackboard displayed an annotated chart of the day’s plan and schedule, dividing the players evenly among classrooms in the afternoon for maximum coverage and putting everyone in the playground in the morning for a live demo.
We warmed up a bit and watched the kids all file out of the school, each carrying their own chair with a crash helmet affixed to the bottom, for use in case of earthquake. After a customary ceremony of introduction, we ran a few passing drills and kicked a few drop goals that drew the kind of applause one might expect if we had all done back flips. Apparently, these kids are playing rugby in the schoolyard on their own at recess. They’d all been watching the World Cup, were excited for the quarter final game against South Africa.
The kids treated us with the celebrity-style reverence that we’re getting from friendly Japanese people on trains and street corners, wanting selfies and autographs from real live rugby players; likely the biggest, whitest people they’d ever seen. I was at least as fascinated by them. The kids served a hot lunch in the classroom with order and efficiency. They showed us Japanese games and told us about themselves and what they liked to do with great interest, diligently working to make their beginners English understood.
At the farewell dinner, one of the Kiwis had calculated that the ambassador groups Superman RFC had sent out from the touring sides reached 150,000 kids that day, with the demo. Rugby being part of the sports curriculum here would certainly help to grow the game, but it might not need the help.
Baseball and rugby were the only sports being played that day on the artificial turf of the regional sports complex where the Rowers had played the 5 Nations Dream Tournament the day before. We played touch rugby with a large contingent of kids who looked to be all under 13 years old, each one of them developing skill and technique, displaying knowledge of game flow and position. The night before, the Rowers were in the RWC Fan Zone, watching Japan’s World Cup team pull off a decisive victory against Scotland to advance to the elimination stage. The last time the Rowers touring side watched Japan from the Fan Zone was in their 2015 pool stage victory against the Spring Boks in Wales. That game saw Japan awarded a penalty right in front of the sticks with a three point deficit and no time left. They ran the ball off the mark to play for the win and put a try in the corner to seal the deal. The dramatic victory sent the entire Fan Zone (with the notable exception of Dave Anderson) into a delighted chaos. Fortune favours the bold.
That Japanese team held on to earn a victory that nobody would have ever given them credit for pre-tournament on pure will. The victory over Scotland makes for seven Japanese victories out of the last eight World Cup games they’ve played. The Rowers were in attendance this past Sunday as “The Brave Blossoms,” carried the emotional momentum of a host nation who just went a few rounds with a typhoon into a rematch against South Africa. This time in a World Cup quarter final.
The blossoms kept it close in the first half, but got beat up by a bigger Boks pack in the 2nd half. A stadium full of faithful lived and died with every phase, and believed the whole way through. An enormous rally in Tokyo followed the next day, where Captain and fan favourite Micheal Leitch spoke to an appreciative audience about how much their support meant to his squad. World Cup Rugby contenders aren’t built over night. It takes a slow burn development of a talent base, it takes adults who have wanted it since they were kids so bad that they could taste it. It’s hard to tell how many of these kids want it that badly. We won’t really know for another decade or so. I can say with certainty, there are enough of them who like the game and have fun playing it.