While not necessarily my preference, this is my prediction of what I think the rugby landscape will look like from 2022 onwards.
While performances at the World Cup have been analysed to death, there is one analysis that has been missed: the effort of the fans.
Everywhere we went, we had Japanese people wanting to be part of the celebration of rugby. They embraced the game like no other fan group. In fact, within three weeks of the games commencing, you could no longer buy a Japanese rugby jersey anywhere. Knocked out in the quarter-finals, the Japanese continued to celebrate all things rugby until way after the final whistle in the decider.
Oh my, the Irish. Responsible for inducing more bad behaviour, more hangovers, and more fun than any other fan group. Also knocked out in the quarter-finals, the Irish fans continued to party – and party hard – on the way home, including at the airport. Yes, their team was no longer playing, but this was a rugby tour and they were going to celebrate regardless.
Allez Les Bleus! The outfits, the chants, the interaction with competing fans, the French embraced it all. Full of emotion, and supporting their team to the end, the French supporters also saw a quarter-final exit. Regardless, they embraced the Welsh fans after the game, and continued with their celebrations and chants.
As Welsh voices rose to song in the quarter and semi-finals, a chill went down the back. There can be no other nation with such musically gifted fans, and it is an honour to be part of a crowd when the Welsh are playing. Despite their team playing in the most boring game of rugby in living memory (and losing), the Welsh fans filled the Tokyo bars after, full of fun and song.
Kiwi fans are not used to losing, so after a semi-final exit, one was expecting to see a line of black at the airport, sporting scowls and bad humour. Not so. Black still filled the streets of Tokyo, albeit with an air of resignation – they were beaten by a better team on the day. Sure, there was no partying in the streets (unlike the Irish, who were still at it), but there was a love of rugby that saw them attend the final with excitement and appreciation of the great rugby being played in front of them.
Anyone but England. With a fan base so sure of themselves, so certain of victory, almost American in their self confidence. So the Sunday after the final we expected to see them in a state of mourning. Not so. They had all been partying for weeks. All had seen some fantastic rugby. And all had a bit of that French c’est la vie attitude. Sure, they were disappointed, but today was another day in beautiful Japan, and they were going to make the most of their final moments in a country that had embraced them and their rugby team so warmly.
The South Africans
Where were the Saffas? The ones who were there were passionate and enthusiastic.
They came from all parts of South Africa – all walks of life. There was not the arrogance some expected, rather a joy and inclusiveness that has been reported on since. Best summed up at 10am the Sunday after the final, we were wearing tiger onesies, driving go-karts through the streets of Tokyo when we stopped at traffic lights in Roppongi. Out of a bar stumbled two boys in Springboks jerseys. Out onto the street they stumbled, high-fiving us in the go-karts, before dancing across the road and embracing everyone they saw. Pure joy!
We were told that the Australian fans were the second biggest fan group in Japan after the Poms. They were a mixed bunch, but almost exclusively all over 40, and most over 50. There were the whingers after the Wallabies exited in the quarters, but they got over it pretty quickly. There were the die-hards who cheered all things Australian. There was a very small group of party boys who challenged the ex-Wallabies on tour to see who could be the worst behaved. By and large, the Aussies were in good humour, and were there for the rugby, for the culture, or to try to keep up with the Irish fans.
Coming home was a shock to the system. Back to the unhealthy food. Back to the bush fires. And back to the negativity that seems to engulf Australian rugby.
I long for the days in Japan, where everyone was there for the fun of watching amazing athletes perform on rugby’s biggest stage. To embrace the differences in the local people and their customs. To party with rugby fans from around the world. To enjoy the company of others, whether their team beat yours, or neither of your teams were playing that day.
To come together for the rugby, and to be glad to be part of the greatest game of all.