It was at the gate lounge at Singapore’s Changi airport where it all started to hit home. After months of eager anticipation, the ninth Rugby World Cup was actually about to start tomorrow.
Hordes of South African rugby fans – every second one of them Os du Randt’s twin – had consumed the lounge like green Spakfiller, sending the Singapore Airlines ground staff into frantic walkie-talkie mode, scurrying to load extra beer on board.
If the flight crew were nervous, they needn’t have been. Beer was guzzled, but the banter, between themselves and anyone else caught in the crossfire, while sometimes loud, was unfailingly MA, not R-rated.
These were rugby people who had, just like the Kiwis, Aussies, Brits and others who crowded the arrivals area at Narita, simply come here to shout for their team, and enjoy all that Japan has to offer.
The next day, things took a strange turn at Tokyo Stadium; an eager to please staffer at the media centre assuming that I was part of the Russian rugby media, wishing my team luck against the hosts in the opening match.
Fair enough, I’d recently watched the excellent Chernobyl series, and a White Russian is often my late-night ‘go to’ when looking to switch from the beer. But perhaps the passport I used to confirm my media accreditation might have been a better indicator.
Usually one to steer well clear of opening ceremonies and pre-match palaver, this one was quite the event; grand and theatrical, crowned by Richie McCup himself, delivering the silverware to 50,000 expectant fans, almost all of them dressed in red and white.
Ever cool in a crisis, when asked by the stadium hosts to nominate a Russian player to watch out for, McCaw deftly smuggled the ball back onto his side and called out Japan captain Michael Leitch instead.
While the rugby was more willing than accomplished, this was undeniably a wonderful night for the game. The Rugby World Cup is a global powerhouse on every measure and anyone who may have doubted the wisdom of World Rugby awarding the event to Japan needed only to soak up the atmosphere outside the stadium and in, to know that the right card had been played.
Off notes were few; Roar colleague Brett McKay messaging during the first half to ask if I could persuade one of the Russian players to part with their socks as a souvenir was like a kid asking Santa for a bike and an X-box. But after all, why not, when I’m so well connected to the Russian team?
Their fullback, captain and second cousin Vasily Artemev was the first player into the tournament shame file, with a clearing kick that made Marika Koroibete look like Naas Botha, gifting Kotara Matsushima his third try.
Artemev was in good company however; over the weekend, Sonny-Bill Williams also failed to launch a clearing kick from the ground, and David Pocock wrapped up the tournament’s worst lineout throw award in only the second match!
As luck had it, I located a cosy, rugby-friendly bar only a Faf de Klerk box kick from my hotel, but after rocking up on Saturday to watch the Australia vs Fiji match, I was disappointed to be told that the bar didn’t open until 2.00pm.
“But the match starts at 1.45”, I pleaded.
The host beamed back at me. “Today we open at 1.45pm!”
Just as well too; it would have been disappointing to have missed Fiji’s rollicking start, and to have been unable to share the bewilderment at Australia’s tactics with the other patrons who had by now gathered, equally non-plussed.
Transition to the International Stadium at Yokohama went so well I was still able to pick up 55 minutes of the France vs Argentina match, and the heartbreak of Emiliano Boffelli’s late penalty attempt to win the match, drifting agonisingly wide. It’s going to be a very tough road now for the Pumas, if they are to qualify.
The next day, as if sent by god, or maybe Israel Folau himself, right up in the clouds at the top of the stand, a fit looking Juan-Martin Hernandez took a seat alongside. Perhaps out of pity but more out of cowardice, I mentioned neither the Puma’s loss to France nor how he’d failed to crack The Roar’s top 50 World Cup players.
There was a another surprise too, just before the All Blacks versus Springboks match, when I found myself taking a quick pit-stop alongside Luke Jacobsen – dressed in his team-issue blue training gear – whom I’d assumed was not allowed to be in contact with the team, after having been ruled out of the tournament, replaced by Shannon Frizell.
Sniffing a scandal, the riddle was solved the following day – because of concussion protocols Jacobsen was still awaiting clearance to be able to fly back to New Zealand, and thus had dispensation to stay with the team until such time he was medically cleared.
Which didn’t quite explain how Jacobsen came to be pictured with teammates a couple of days later in Beppu, 1,120kms and a couple of islands to the south. Although to be fair, he does look like a strong swimmer.
Japan is a land of contrasts, none more aptly demonstrated by the delightful ‘Smoking Manner’ guide whose task it was to gently remind fans not to smoke at any point along the 800m walk from Kozukue Station to the stadium. Only in Japan would it be against regulations to smoke outside while at the same time, allow people sitting shoulder to shoulder in cramped and crowded restaurants to light up with impunity.
The highlight so far came with the singing of the national anthems – the New Zealand players helped out by a chorus of thousands of black-jerseyed Japanese – admittedly their English stronger than their Maori.
Heart-warming stuff, almost as tear-inducing as Springbok captain Siya Kolisi, whose press conference love-in consisted of little more than; “I can’t fault the All Blacks in any way.”
Wonder if he says that in the pre-match team talk?
Sunday loomed promisingly, a huge contingent of Irish fans contributing to a wonderful pre-match atmosphere. But even they must have been secretly disappointed at how Scotland failed to make a true contest, even if the tournament benefits from the potential Japan vs Scotland blockbuster now set-up for the final night of pool play.
One disturbing aspect for regular Super Rugby watchers has been the refusal of those in charge of match-day entertainment to play Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline during the games. As a gesture of good faith however, they did give John Denver’s Country Roads a spin at half-time on Sunday.
Clearly, the PC brigade who would have Denver expunged from history for his marital misdemeanours, haven’t yet spread their tentacles from Northcote and Erskineville, as far as Yokohama. Nevertheless, it was one of those strange but beautiful moments, being among 60,000 plus people belting out one of the all-time naff tunes at the top of their lungs.
Later, the New Zealand journos muscled in on my local bar, but with both England and Tonga failing to inspire, heads spinning from three full-on days of rugby and trains, and beer at $16 a pint, the whole evening kind of fizzled out in the rain.
None of which stopped me going back for more the next night, as Wales put paid to the Vili’s, who for the first half, looked as if they’d loaded up on too many of their famous pies.
And it was back again on Tuesday night for more, this time Samoa’s Rey Lee-Lo going Rey Lee-High on one of my comrades, thus earning himself a date with the citing commissioner alongside teammate, ex-Hurricane, Motu’u Motu’u.
Wednesday was ‘meet a Wallaby’ day, and the chance to hear Kurtley Beale say that the Wallabies were keeping their focus ‘week to week’, and for Sekope Kepu to reveal that, ahead of Sunday’s huge clash with Wales, the scrum would ‘take the learnings from last week’.
Not quite Samu Kerevi’s ‘we’re going to take some learnings from those learnings’ from earlier this year, but a decent effort nevertheless.
Kepu also revealed how the Wallabies’ pre-tournament training camp in New Caledonia had resulted in the team becoming extremely tight-knit. With no phone network available, leisure activities centred around paddle-boarding, card games and, since arriving in Japan and bathing in traditional Onsen, getting some of the shy boys to be more comfortable being naked in each other’s company.
Assistant coach Nathan Grey also chimed in to say how the focal point of each evening for the team was to gather upstairs to watch the 9.00pm fireworks display from the Disneyland complex next door. Clothed.
Any reporter sniffing around this team looking for a booze or sex scandal is in for a lean few weeks. On the other hand, anyone looking for a story about why players like Reece Hodge were allowed to come to this World Cup – where everyone knew there’d be a focus on high contact – admitting no knowledge of or training on World Rugby’s decision-making framework for high tackles, is in fertile territory.
The city of Kamaishi was devastated by an earthquake and tsunami in 2011, and the Fiji versus Uruguay fixture, at a new stadium, purpose-built as part of the recovery process, marked an important juncture in the forward progress of the city.
Perhaps it was that which inspired such a spirited performance from Uruguay, but once they got their teeth into Fiji – admittedly on a short turnaround – they weren’t letting go, and the tournament’s first upset was delivered, 30-27.
A stark reminder to all that while the World Cup is really all about the big guys, it really isn’t all about the big guys.
It’s also about politicians, where in a potential omen result for the main tournament, it was revealed that New Zealand emerged victorious in the Parliamentary World Cup, beating Australia with an extra-time ‘golden try’ after the scores were locked at 10-10 at full-time.
Recalling Trevor Mallard, current Speaker in the New Zealand Parliament, as an honest, toiling second-rower in the Taumarunui Eels ‘B’ team in the mid-1980s, this news came as no surprise.
For the record, France beat South Africa to claim third place, although it must be said that England were severely hampered by their effervescent captain; snowy-haired Jean-Pierre Rives lookalike, B Johnson, being unavailable due to pressing matters back at home.
Thursday night, and 2011 World Cup-winning coach Graham Henry was spotted in Fukuoka, working as an assistant for Canada – hopefully not in charge of their woeful tackling and handling, and teaching poor Matt Heaton how not to bomb a try from point-blank range.
Tokyo is a food lovers paradise, with an array of eating options in every neighbourhood. So many that I’m able to safely steer clear of the restaurant across from my hotel which specialises in ‘Baniku’. At the risk of being labelled unadventurous, I always thought that horses are for petting, riding and betting on.
The week closed with more Hodge outrage, a rush to finish my book, ‘Bad Blood’, John Carreyou’s gripping account of the rise and crashing fall of Elizabeth Holmes and her Silicon Valley company, Theranos, and an important search to find a bar guaranteed to be showing the mighty Richmond Tigers striving for AFL final glory. Sorry Argentina vs Tonga.
And then, just when I was anticipating a quiet afternoon, broke the news that Bernard Foley had been selected to start for the Wallabies against Wales…