On Saturday the 8th June a young Welsh side met a feisty Japan for an exciting first game of Wales’ tour of Japan.
Osaka’s Kintestu Hanazono Stadium, Japan’s oldest dedicated rugby stadium, was the stage for the first game of the Japan-Wales test series. 30,000 rugby fans filled the stadium to capacity for the 2pm kick off on a scorching June Saturday. I was one of those fans.
Having bonded on my first day with Kyoto-sensei over a mutual love of the game, these last 10 months I have enjoyed his regular reports on Kobe Steel Kobelco Steelers [what a mouthful] matches, as well as personalized DVDs of every Six Nations match [he knows the time difference plays hell with sports viewing]. However it wasn’t until the Wales tour of Japan that we managed to join forces and go to a game.
Looking back at Wales’ last tour to Japan in 2001 when the visitors dominated the relatively new rugby nation with two wins and painful point differences (10th June 2001: 64-10, 17thJune: 53-30) you might be forgiven for predicting a similar walkover by the 26-time Six Nations winning side. However, add to the mix seven first-time caps on the field for the Welsh, intense heat and humidity, and a Japanese team itching for a win after two recent frustrating losses to Fiji and Tonga in the Pacific Nations Cup, and you have one interesting match.
Of course Kyoto-sensei was supporting Japan. I, however, wore my daffodil with pride, rooting for the visiting side. A Welsh surname was enough to garner forgiveness for my treachery to the home team and we arrived at the Hanazono Stadium in high spirits, each wanting a win for our team, but far too polite to really vocalize it.
In typical Japanese style we arrived over an hour before kick-off. This proved a good call as the majority of the stadium was free seating and Kyoto-sensei had to greet all the other regulars on his way to finding our seats. Of course it also facilitated a quick stop for libations, essential to any sunny sporting event. There was a definite party atmosphere as the stadium filled and we scrutinized the teams warming up. Japan Rugby is really trying to build up support for the sport in Japan in advance of hosting the 2019 World Cup – Not only did we all come away with promotional goodies to prove it, but I learnt that all high school rugby clubs in the country had been offered free seats at the test matches to encourage young rugby fans. It all made for a jovial atmosphere as true fans of the sport gathered, keen to get involved.
The match itself was great fun to watch and the Cherry Blossom’s performance was very impressive. Despite being a second tier rugby nation, they really gave Wales’ inexperienced XV a run for their money. In the first half Japan fielded a tenacious defence, making Wales struggle at the breakdown, providing the home team with two penalties, opportunities that full-back Ayumu Goromaru used to give Japan a 6-0 lead. Although Wales clawed themselves back with two of their own penalties, Japan dominated possession and were the deserved leaders at half-time (11-6) thanks to an unopposed try from Michael Broadhurst.
The twenty minute interval gave the Welsh side a much needed reprieve from the scorching heat, which had them dazed in the first half. [It was also the perfect opportunity for a snack break for the spectators, and let me tell you Japan does sports food better than the Millennium Stadium: ice cream, curries, karaage and even a huge seafood BBQ for those who don’t bring their own picnic – the novelty of this being allowed has still not worn off!]
After the break the boys in red came back fighting, determined to prove themselves despite the weather conditions. Although Japan still looked strong, Goromaru missed a couple of penalties whereas Wales’ Biggar was on target. The young Welsh side seemed to finally click as Harry Robinson received a fantastic pass from Liam Williams and secured a try, converted by Biggar. The scattered Wales fans in the stands sighed with relief, but before they could get complacent Japan countered with their own converted try.
The last ten minutes were tense; Wales led 19-18. The crowd, 99.9% Japan supporters, was clamouring for a home win – although in truly Japanese form they clapped and cheered for any good play, no matter which side it came from (they really are the most polite sports fans in the world) but Wales were determined to keep their 100% record against Japan and the replacement fly-half Rhys Patchell secured it with a well-aimed penalty in the dying minutes.
An exciting game and a thoroughly enjoyable day; we left the stadium very slowly (I recommend public transport rather than the hour queue to leave the car park) and went for an “after match function”. Although Kyoto-sensei and his compatriots were disappointed with the result, we all agreed it was a hard won game for the Welsh and that it is very positive for the future of rugby in Asia to see Japan able to give a far more established rugby nation a real run for its money.
Test Series update: On Saturday the 15th June, at the Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground, Tokyo, Japan claimed an historic win (23-8) over Wales. A spectacular second half saw the Cherry Blossoms break a 40 year losing streak against the Red Dragons – a very exciting result for the future of international rugby and the 2019 World Cup hosts themselves.