TOWNSVILLE, Australia — Talk about living up to your nickname!
Australia is known as “the lucky country” and for sports fans Oct. 10 was certainly a lucky day to be in the land down under. A sensational record-breaking performance from Australian cricketer Matthew Hayden in Perth proved to be the perfect curtain raiser for the opening ceremony and opening game of the 2003 Rugby World Cup, watched by 81,350 at Telstra Stadium, the biggest crowd in the tournament’s history and a TV audience worldwide in the hundreds of millions.
Arriving at Cairns at 5 a.m. on Friday, the four-hour drive down to Townsville was spent listening to a variety of radio stations all of which were promoting the Rugby World Cup. In a land where rugby union has to compete with rugby league and Australian Rules football, the various broadcasters used a variety of methods (from the comedic to hushed, almost reverent, tones) to get the same message across. Namely that this was a huge tournament and that the eyes of the world would be on Australia for the next six weeks.
The coastal city of Townsville, Japan’s home for the next two weeks, has been decked in World Cup banners and flags and the local population has been boosted by a number of Japanese and Scottish fans in for the first game in Group B, which kicks off at Dairy Farmers’ Stadium at 8 p.m. on Sunday.
Friday was a rest day for the Japan squad, and while some of the players spend time at the gym, the others paid a visit to the Billabong Sanctuary — a local wildlife park which gave the players the only real chance they are likely to get to be up close with a wallaby.
There was another chance to get close to some of the local critters in the evening, when both the Japan and Scotland teams gathered at the Museum of Tropical Queensland to be presented with their World Cup caps by the Honourable Peter Beattie MP, Premier of Queensland and Minister for Trade — though captain Takuro Miuchi looked less than comfortable with a python around his neck as he posed for photos with the premier.
The caps, presented to all 600 players representing the 20 countries in the tournament, were hand-made by the Albion Hat and Cap Company (the same company that makes the famous “baggy green” worn by Hayden when he smashed Brian Lara’s record for the highest-ever individual score in a test match earlier in the day at the WACA.)
“This event is a prized moment for everyone who has ever dreamed of playing rugby for their country and we wish each player every success in their quest for rugby’s ultimate prize,” said Beasley.
Prior to the official function, both coaches had named their teams for Sunday’s game and the Japan team contained a couple of surprises.
While the pack was pretty much as expected (with the exception of Yuya Saito, who picked up an ankle injury in training) the backs show a number of changes in what many believe is the team’s strongest combination.
NEC scrumhalf Takashi Tsuji has been brought in for his first cap and will be partnered by Japan’s all-time top points scorer Keiji Hirose, with veteran Tsutomu Matsuda picked at fullback.
As a result Kobe Steel’s halfback pairing of Yuji Sonoda and Andy Miller (recently recovered from a hamstring injury) have been left on the bench along with Toru Kurihara, though all three are likely to come on in the second half as Japan tries to get as much advantage as it can from the heat.
“We are looking at playing a tight kicking game in the first half and then running it in the second half,” Kurihara said.
Head coach Shogo Mukai added further fuel to the fire when he turned down the organizers’ offer of a drink break at the midway point of both halves.
“I don’t think it is a big problem playing in this heat,” Mukai said of the 31 C heat. “It’s no big deal. This is not that hot for us.”
However, it may well be the Cherry Blossoms who find themselves wilting.
Whatever the outcome though, both sets of supporters will be out on the town on Sunday mixing with their hospitable hosts to ensure that the festival-like atmosphere that has taken hold nationwide in Australia extends as far north as northern Queensland.
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