SYDNEY — Japan coach Shogo Mukai and a number of his staff will bid the national team farewell on Monday when the Cherry Blossoms take on the U.S. in Gosford in their final game at the Rugby World Cup.
Having won over this sport-loving nation with their heroics and free-spirited rugby in their opening two games against Scotland and France, the Japanese were brought down to earth on Thursday against Fiji, unable to give their North Queensland fans and the hundreds who had flown over from Japan the win they had craved for.
And Mukai, who has already said he will be standing down after the World Cup, will have his work cut out if he is to lift his squad and give it the win that so many rugby followers feel it deserves.
Having only had four days off after its game with France, the Japanese team — some of whom seemed physically and mentally drained — have just four days to travel down from Townsville to the central New South Wales coast and take on the U.S.
As the Japan-based Tongan captain Inoke Aeaki said about the schedule that seems to have favored the rugby super powers: “Surely there is a mathematician in Australia who can develop a draw that sees every team have six days between games.”
One thing the players will not be lacking is support, though it may be asking a little too much for Gosford to match the wonderful welcome put out by the people of Townsville.
Northern Queensland had taken the Japanese to their hearts and the players had become celebrities in the small coastal town that they called home for three weeks.
“It’s been awesome, the people on the streets have been really supportive,” Japan lock Adam Parker said. “In a way the boys will miss Townsville, they’ve really enjoyed the place.”
On the field the team won over the locals — many of whom had seen very little rugby union, preferring the 13-man version of the game — with its brave tackling and never-say-die attitude in attack. Off the field, the team undertook a public relations exercise that ensured it will long be remembered in Townsville.
Local schoolboy rugby player Jesse King was said to be absolutely thrilled with the signed training shirt and traditional good luck card signed by the whole squad that he received in his hospital bed. King had caught the potentially fatal meningococcal while on a rugby tour to Europe and was forced to miss the Scotland vs. Japan game, but is now well on the road to recovery.
Another schoolboy, Stuart MacArthur made sure his school formal was a night to remember. MacArthur entered the Jupiters Hotel in a decorated shopping cart pushed by Ryo Yamamura. The Japanese prop has become one of the characters of the tournament in part because of his background as a sumo wrestler. Still in his fourth year at Kanto Gakuin University, Yamamura had been courted by a number of top sumo stables before deciding his future lay in rugby.
And in the Townsville Bulletin there was a letter from a student at Weir State School thanking the Japan Rugby Football Union for the tickets that the JRFU had given them.
The response from the locals, including one who made a 20-hour round trip to watch all three games, was to fill Dairy Farmers Stadium with anything Japanese. Kimonos, sumo outfits, hachimaki, and anything with a rising sun on it replaced the traditional local uniform of shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops.
Japan captain Takuro Miuchi said after the game that he had never seen so many Japanese flags, and jersey manufacturer Canterbury must have been delighted as there were enough replica shirts on display in the crowd to kit out around 100 teams.
While the stadium P.A. pumped out “I’m turning Japanese” every time the Cherry Blossoms scored a try and the locals did their bit to make the players wish they played all their games in Queensland, the players and staff did all they could to return the favor.
Following the games against Scotland and France the players enjoyed a well-deserved drink or two in the bars of the town, mingling with fans and opposition alike — though a sign of the huge disappointment felt after the Fiji game was their noticeable absence from Townsville’s watering holes.
The team also visited several tourist spots and were perfect ambassadors for their country always obliging their newfound fans with autographs and photo opportunities.
It would be just reward for the spirit and bravado shown by the Cherry Blossoms if they are able to leave Australia with a win, but the Americans are no pushovers. Japan has already played the U.S. this year with the Americans winning 69-27 and if that wasn’t cause enough for revenge, the U.S. beat Japan 21-18, the last time the two countries met in a World Cup back in 1987.
But a sold-out Central Coast Stadium will no doubt do all they can to make sure the Japanese leave in style.
A win would also give one unnamed member of the team’s support staff the opportunity to practice his newfound Aussie English.
The morning after the game against Scotland his response to being asked how he felt was that he was “looking for a hairy dog.”
Hopefully come Tuesday morning there will be a few more chances for him to describe the players as being “crook” and “half-cut.”
It would be just reward for all the hard work they have put in during their time in Australia.
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