An American’s Second Rugby Experience

by Jocelyn Pollak

About a year ago, I wrote a piece for Expat Life in Thailand titled “An American’s First Rugby Experience”. It was a somewhat tongue-in-cheek account of my trip to the Singapore 7s rugby tournament and my near complete ignorance about the sport. Here I am again to follow up that article with this creatively titled one, “An American’s Second Rugby Experience”, a marginally less ignorant account of my recent trip to the Rugby World Cup in Japan. Despite the fact that we Yanks enjoy a good sporting event, rugby has never been particularly popular in the land of the free and home of the brave. Football, the American padding-wearing, skull-smashing version of kill the carrier, eclipses both rugby and soccer in popularity. However, the USA did manage to field a team for the RWC… and that’s all I’m going to say about that.

RugbyLike the soccer World Cup (remember, I’m American, so it’s soccer), the RWC happens every four years in a different country. Japan hosted the ninth World Championship this year from September 20 to November 2. This was particularly exciting for the sport because it was the first time the event has ever been hosted in Asia and the first time it hasn’t been hosted by a traditionally tier one rugby country. Over 37 matches, twenty countries will be battling for the championship. At the time of publication, the tournament is still in full swing despite several matches being rescheduled due to the monster typhoon that hit Japan mid-October.

I arrived in Fukuoka on the morning of October 2 and was immediately made aware that the RWC was happening. There were banners and signs everywhere. Cheerful volunteer information guides offered help to all of the bleary eyed travellers, like myself, who had just come off the red-eye flight. Brochures and pamphlets galore! These guys were ready. Despite flying into Fukuoka (for just 5,200B! thanks typhoon season), it was not my final destination. I had to get to Oita, which is a small city on the North East coast of Kyushu about 2 hours from Fukuoka, to see the New Zealand All Blacks play Canada that night. Because there were so many people with the same plan as me, all the seats on the JR trains were booked so I had to gamble on being able to get a seat in the free seating zone. Luckily, I was able to get one and almost immediately passed out. Red-eyes on budget airlines, as cheap as they are, are a little tougher when you’re in your mid-thirties.

Oita station was buzzing with RWC activity. Just like with any good sports game, you could feel the anticipation for the 7pm game already building at noon. Because of the massive influx of people for the All Blacks/Canada game, it was tough to find a reasonably priced hotel so I ended up staying outside Oita in a decidedly non-tourist, very suburban area. I dropped my bags at the hotel where they literally could not speak a word of English besides rug-uh-bee and went to the local ramen guy. Even his little shop in a random Oita suburb was completely decked out in RWC swag. These guys were into it.

JapanThe tail end of a typhoon made for a wet afternoon/evening but it didn’t stop the rugby fans. Please take my judgement of the stadium with an understanding that the bulk of my sporting event venue experience has been at Wrigley Field in Chicago (built in 1914), Soldier Field in Chicago (built in 1924) and old Yankee Stadium in New York (built in 1923). The Showa Denko Dome was like an ultra-modern spaceship in comparison. The scene was also quite different from any American sporting event I have experienced in person or on TV. The whole experience was much more sterile. There was one kind of beer, but barely any drunk people, and about 5 food options. That’s it. They also had a couple of merchandise tents that were completely sold out of almost everything and had waiting lines of well over an hour. At the whole event, the only thing that they seemed to drop the ball on, no pun intended, was the gear sales. Note for anyone who wants to make some money at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, get a bunch of T-shirts made and sell them on the street.

lawnBy the start of the game, the stands were packed solid. I had no idea that the Japanese were such huge rugby fans. I was sitting in the cheap end-zone seats next to a Canadian guy who used to play on the national team until he got injured. It was my lucky night; he explained everything that was going on to me and cheered loudly enough for both of us. I was pretty conflicted as to who to root for as I didn’t have an allegiance towards either team. I had an All Blacks shirt so I wore that, but really, I was hoping my upstairs Canadian neighbours would be able to put up a fight. Unfortunately, the game was an absolute killing, 63-0. Apparently, the All Blacks don’t have a mercy point. Despite the rain, upon exiting the stadium there were about 150 Japanese volunteers all lined up at the exit gate waving goodbye and giving high fives to everyone as we left the stadium. A nice way to end the evening.

I had a few days gap between games, so I had the opportunity to explore Kyushu a bit. I ate sushi delivered to me by a remote-controlled car, got a fish foot massage and had a near hallucinogenic experience after being buried in hot, wet volcanic sand at an onsen (which I highly recommend by the way). The part of Japan that I was in is known for onsens, or in English, hot spring spas. Particularly in a small town called Beppu, there are 100+ small establishments with hot pools and other thermal related treatments. I went to Takegawara onsen in downtown Beppu which I came to find out is one of the oldest. For an extra 1000 yen, they take you to a side room for the sand treatment. I don’t know how else to describe it, but I could feel my heartbeat in my entire body because of the weight of the sand. Totally worth it.

roomAfter checking out Fukuoka, Beppu and Yufuin, I headed back to Oita on Saturday for the Australia/Uruguay game. It was a beautiful afternoon compared to the rainy evening of the All Blacks game, so I was already off to a good start. Before the game, I spent some time in the Fan Zone that they had set up outside the station. I stumbled through an obstacle course, had some fun in the photo booths and let some high school kids do the thing where they pick you up by the legs and you catch the ball. I admit, I screamed. The crowd for this game was considerably less crazy. I think the star power of the All Blacks must have drawn in a lot more people. This was also a marginally more exciting game to watch. Uruguay put up a pretty good fight but, in the end, lost to the Wallabies 45-10. With another 160 minutes of rugby under my belt (see, I now know that games are 80 minutes long), I am starting to feel a little more confident about knowing what’s going on. While I have zero authority beyond that of an average spectator, what I am very confident of is Japan’s ability to manage a major international sporting event. They did an absolutely incredible job. Their attention to detail (minus the lack of merchandise) made for a truly memorable experience. So, well done Japan. For anyone considering a trip to the Olympics in 2020, I’d say go for it!

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