Rugby players haven’t always enjoyed the best of reputations.
“Elitist public schoolboys,” or “Drinkers with a rugby problem,” are just two examples of the way they are viewed. But to New Zealander Sue MacFadyen, they are the salt of the earth who have gone beyond the call of duty in helping her family overcome tragedy.
Four years ago Sue’s son, Gareth, died as a result of burns inflicted when his grass skirt was set on fire during a Hawaiian-themed Christmas party in Auckland, and every year since, the Tokyo Crusaders and the Yokohama Country and Athletic Club have played a game in his honor.
Gareth first came to Japan in 1996 and was soon appearing for all three ex-pat sides — the Cru, the YCAC and the Tokyo Gaijin — and was, according to former Crusaders prop Derek Simmons, “outstanding both as a player and a person.”
Such was his impact on the finance and rugby communities in Tokyo that a memorial game was set up four months after his death with Sue and husband Ian flying out for the game.
“In (March) 2001 I thought, ‘Wow, I now know how much Japan meant to Gareth,’ ” said Sue on Saturday at the YCAC’s grounds in Yamate, Kanagawa Prefecture.
“Both teams, the support and friendship that sport gives . . . Sportsmen need things in English. I was worried about Gareth not speaking the language when he came here but the support from all the other rugby guys up here helped him so much.
“I can also see why he liked Japan. Everyone is so friendly and helpful and everything is so ordered.”
The first time the trophy was contested, the Crusaders triumphed as the event got off to a rousing start. But Sue — who said she was supporting both sides and hoped the game would end in a honorable draw — was to miss the next three fixtures, as the full impact of what had happened took its toll.
“Last year with the court case, things went very public in New Zealand and it was a difficult time but that didn’t stop me phoning the captains of both teams on the morning of the game,” she said.
However, with time comes healing and Sue believes that the support of Gareth’s former teammates, opponents and colleagues has made a big difference.
“I am blown away by all of this,” she said as the YCAC Gents beat the Crusaders 2nd XV 39-14 in the curtain-raiser.
“I was presented with Gareth’s No. 8 jersey by the Crusaders. They have retired the number and it is very touching to have it. Many of the players are from the finance industry. It’s like a worldwide family and they have all been so supportive.”
So impressed have the MacFadyens been by the support offered to them that they are hoping to set up some form of sponsorship for a student from Gareth’s alma mater, Otago University.
“We’d like to get some type of sponsorship scheme started at Otago Uni, whereby we send someone up here every year. But I want to make sure the person is honest and lives up to the reputation and doesn’t do anything to tarnish Gareth’s memory.”
The family has also promised its continued support for the game played in Gareth’s honor.
“We have made a commitment that each year from now on, one member of the family will come to Japan for the game,” she said.
And next year they will not be alone as they hope to bring up one of the top referees in the world, Paddy O’Brien, who is a close friend of the family.
However, O’Brien will not be the first top referee to have officiated the game.
That honor fell to Vinny Munro, who was flown up by Air New Zealand to officiate in this year’s game, which was won 18-14 by the YCAC — the third time the oldest rugby club in Japan has claimed the trophy.
“Simon Ryan (chairman of the YCAC rugby club), Gareth and I were all born in the same hospital,” said Munro, a member of the Air New Zealand National Referees Squad.
“Simon approached me and asked me to come over. I had seen an article about the game in New Zealand Rugby News and with Air New Zealand supplying the ticket I jumped at the chance.”
Air New Zealand’s involvement came about because of its links with the National Provincial Championship and its sponsorship of the New Zealand referees’ association.
“We also have a good relationship with the YCAC, so we were quite happy to support this event,” said Kei Nakai, marketing and communications officer with the airline.
The players obviously relished the chance to be refereed by an official with so much experience and Munro for his part enjoyed getting back to grassroots rugby.
“It wasn’t a bad standard and was played in a good spirit and was very competitive,” said the policeman from Christchurch.
“They played rugby today. They listened and there were very few penalties. It was obviously very serious because of Gareth. There was a lot at stake and it was certainly win-at-all-costs.”
Munro, whose only previous experience of Japan was officiating in a youth tournament at the Sanix club in Fukuoka, was also overwhelmed by the friendship offered by players and supporters of both teams and said he was hoping there might be a vacancy next year as a touch judge when O’Brien takes charge.
By then he might have got used to one of the big differences between rugby in the Land of the Rising Sun and the Land of the Long White Cloud.
“I’ve never been to a game on a train before,” he said, as he got on a train at Yamate Station, complete with post-match refreshments, ready for a night out and a “few” beers with members of both teams.
The trip, Sue’s second to Japan, will no doubt not be her last.
With life returning to some form of normality — “I stopped my business 30 minutes after he died but am now thinking of starting something up again” — she is delighted that such strong links exist between the rugby-playing community of Tokyo and Gareth’s home in New Zealand.
“We have set up an international friendship group as a result and look after the players and their mothers when they come to New Zealand,” she said, adding that she expected a great many to make the trip next year when the British Lions take on the All Blacks.
“Gareth loved the people up here and I wanted to meet them. It was, and still is, very emotional, but I am sure Gareth would have been absolutely stoked by today. He would have loved it.”
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