If you go to watch enough live sport you may get lucky and find yourself at an ‘I was there’ moment. These can take many forms – a record broken, an upset, the crowning of a champion, an outstanding performance, a grand farewell – but you know one when you see one and you can brag about it to your friends for life. I reckon I have been fortunate enough to be present on 3 such occasions but one stands out above all others. I was among the 20,000 or so losing their collective minds as Japan beat South Africa in the 2015 World Cup.
There was only a small sprinkling of Japanese in the Brighton crowd but there were thousands of Japan supporters that day. Joy was unbridled, the noise deafening. Rugby doesn’t really do huge upsets but every truly great World Cup needs one and Japan provided it. While I’ll never forget the scoring of the winning try with the clock dead, my abiding memory came afterwards in the form of a middle-aged Japanese couple in tears being carried shoulder high away from the stadium by the crowd.
On Saturday, England host Japan for the first time. Not much carries rarity value in this global sporting world but Japan’s visit does, and not just because it is their first visit to these shores since their finest hour 3 years ago. They are usually at a size disadvantage so have to play the game slightly differently to be successful. When Dave Walder went to play in Japan, he commented that people didn’t look for the big hits and tackled in the traditional way around the legs. This meant that it is easier to keep the ball alive so the game is fast. Walder did not feel beaten up after a match but aerobically he was exhausted.
Eddie Jones recognised this when masterminding Japan’s victory over South Africa, nullifying the weight differential in the scrum by getting the ball in and out as fast as possible. It was the start of the return of hookers actually hooking the ball. World Rugby realised this was desirable and changed the laws to make hooking compulsory. Thus Japan, through a smart tactical decision, were instrumental in a tweak to the laws.
Japan’s visit is long overdue. Their only previous meeting with England was at the inaugural World Cup in 1987. This is frankly a bit embarrassing given that Japan are one of the few tier two nations to have competed in every World Cup. Similarly, England have never played Georgia outside the global tournament, and they are the 7th best team in England’s own continent (England are only the 5th based on the last Six Nations).
In the past decade, England have played only 5 matches against Tier Two nations outside the World Cup, 3 against Samoa and 2 against Fiji, and none away from home. Even New Zealand have played 6 in that time, including 4 away from home. It is a statistic which makes any platitudes about ‘growing the global game’ ring very hollow.
One could argue that this is World Rugby’s fault. The RFU’s obligation is to English rugby and if World Rugby have not brought in any directive on Tier One nations playing Tier Two nations then why should the RFU turn down lucrative matches against their big rivals in favour of a Japan or a Georgia. And the RFU is not renowned for prioritising anything over short term profits.
Fortunately World Rugby has acted. Last year they announced a plan whereby the Six Nations teams will collectively guarantee a minimum of six matches against tier-two opposition during each set of autumn internationals. World Rugby’s ambition is for a minimum of 110 matches between tier-one and tier-two nations between 2020 and 2032, which it claims is an increase of 39% on the previous schedule. The summer after a World Cup is being set aside for Tier One nations to tour their Tier Two counterparts, an excellent development.
I hope Japan make a big impact on and off the field this weekend. They will always be my second favourite team since that unforgettable afternoon in Brighton. And regardless of the result, we hope to see more of them and their deserving Tier 2 peers in the coming years.
By Stuart Peel
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images