Japan is wonderful – a beautiful, crazy country, with a warm welcome for rugby fans from all corners of the world. The fact that the home team have been involved in the best matches of the tournament so far has seen the interest and enthusiasm grow, until you can’t find a ticket for a game, or a t shirt to buy as a souvenir! We’ve been here for two weeks, with just one week, and two more live games to go, and it’s been an incredible experience.
We’ve watched the Japanese games in local bars – no chance of actually being at those game with the demand from the home fans being so huge. The celebrations are getting crazier every time, and you have to wonder just how far they can go, especially with the home support being so passionate.
I have to admit that I expected the Japanese team to be one of the casualties early in the group games, not heading the table and moving towards a quarter final place!
When we started planning this trip, about two years ago, we had no idea that the connections to our home club would also be quite so important. The decision to go to Japan was an easy one, as two friends live and work on Kyushu, and we’d been out to see them, and celebrate their weddings to local girls. The connections start there as they both went to school in Rotherham.
Their advice was helpful in planning the trip as we had a limited budget, and time, so the decision to focus on games in the south of the country, travelling mainly by train, helped us get tickets in the ballots for games that didn’t seem to be the most popular. Just how this tournament has grabbed the attention of the locals is easy to see in the huge queues at every game, no seats available and packed out bars in every town and city.
Last season (2018-19) at Rotherham, a young Canadian guy arrived to play in the second row. He’d had a few games for Canada at senior level, but wasn’t a regular in their starting 15. His ambition was to get to Japan and the RWC, and we talked about the chances of this happening as he worked alongside me, and other Rotherham Titans players, in lots of primary schools.
It’s been one of the highlights of our trip, to watch Conor line up for Canada, facing the All Blacks and their haka, and perform so well against the best side in the world. Speaking to him after the game, he’s making memories that will last a lifetime, and he loved the fact that our little club back home were all celebrating with him.
We’ve also seen Chris Harris and Vereniki Goneva out on the pitch and both spent time with our club. The most surprising Rotherham connection has been Lewis Ludlam. A late arrival in Eddie Jones’ squad, he spent part of the 2016/17 season with us on loan as he couldn’t get into a Premiership match-day squad. He looked a good player, always trying hard, but no-one then was looking at him and seeing the potential to be an England star at the RWC just two years later!
I’m just hoping that the final Rotherham link will get a chance in the last few pool games, as Santi Socino, in the Argentinian squad, was one of my favourite players back in that same 16/17 season.
By the time we get home later this month, we will have travelled over 17,000 miles, by plane, bus, and train, plus a fair bit on foot as well, especially when lost! It’s been an epic adventure, seeing the big cities and places on the tourist trail like Kyoto, Nara and Hiroshima, as well as spending time with friends, eating, drinking and catching up on lives lived in a very different way to back home in Rotherham.
As for the rugby, we’ve still got tickets for 2 Wales games, in Oita and Kumamoto, typhoons permitting, so lots of singing, daft fancy dress, weird celebrations and catching more matches on big screens in bars and fanzones. It will be strange to see the final stages back home, in a proper rugby club, early in the mornings, but we will treasure our Japanese memories and then start planning the next rugby adventure.
If you want to see more about Japan and our travels, check out rothshirtontour.wordpress