The end result wasn’t what they had hoped for, but the Sunwolves’ Super Rugby debut drew a large throng of fans, both Japanese and foreign, and it gave them a lot of excitement at the Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground in Tokyo on Saturday afternoon.
A longtime Japanese rugby fan named Takamori Takayama, who donned a vivid orange Sunwolves replica jersey, exemplified that feeling. A company employee, Takayama traveled from Ichinomiya, Aichi Prefecture, along with his wife and two little children, to witness the Sunwolves’ historic first game.
“It’s disappointing that (the Sunwolves) ended up losing,” Takayama said with a bitter smile after the Sunwolves’ 26-13 defeat to South Africa’s Lions. “I thought that the momentum was shifting to the team in the second half.”
While some pundits said that the Sunwolves would struggle because they hadn’t had much time to prepare for the Super Rugby season and weren’t able to sign many marquee Japanese national team players, Takayama thought that the Sunwolves would have a shot at beating the Lions, who finished eighth last year (and before 2015, they never finished above 11th place in the previous 12 seasons).
“Forwards-wise, I thought (the Sunwolves) would be able to equally compete against them, so I thought it was going to be a good, close game,” said Takayama, adding that his favorite Sunwolf is stand-off Tusi Pisi, who competed in last fall’s World Cup for Samoa. “But (the Sunwolves) played bravely and I’m proud of them.”
Takayama said that he coaches children at a local rugby school. The successful performance by the Brave Blossoms in last fall’s World Cup has certainly helped make more kids want to play the sport, he added.
Takayama expects the game’s popularity could rise even more in Japan depending on how the Sunwolves play in the world’s top rugby union league.
“The recent rise in popularity has definitely produced a great impact for the game in Japan,” he said. “I’m hoping that we’ll continue to create great environments for the kids I’m currently teaching to play in the World Cup 12 years from now.”
Meanwhile, a large number of non-Japanese fans also assembled at the Gaienmae district for the Sunwolves game against the South African team.
Englishman Darrell Nelson visited Prince Chichibu Memorial along with a group of about 15, which mostly consisted of English men living in Japan. Wearing fancy costumes and holding beers in their hands, they appeared to immensely enjoy watching the Sunwolves contest at the jam-packed stadium on a sunny day.
“The biggest thing that I was surprised (about) was the turnout (19,814) at the stadium,” Nelson said. “This is the first time I’ve ever seen the Gaienmae stadium totally sold out. But this is great, and it’s good Japanese (are) getting behind the rugby ball more, especially since the World Cup.”
Being British, Nelson cracked a joke that he was rooting for “the referee” for the game between a Japanese team and a South African team.
“No, we live in Japan, so we support the Sunwolves, of course,” Nelson added.
Nelson said that he didn’t particularly have great expectations for the Sunwolves coming into the game, but the newly established team “didn’t lose it in spectacular form.”
“There’s definitely some life left in the rest of the game, we will see what happens and how it goes,” he said. “They had a good shot (on Saturday).”
As an enthusiastic fan, Nelson thought that the participation of the Sunwolves would only be a good thing because it would bring more diversity to Super Rugby. (Argentina’s Jaguars were also added to the league this year. There are now 18 teams.)
And Nelson hopes that Japan will take advantage of the current craze and the Sunwolves’ entry into Super Rugby to give the 2019 World Cup host an even bigger boost.
“I really want Japanese rugby union to capitalize on this,” said longtime Japan resident and Lancashire native Nelson, who works for a digital marketing agency in Tokyo. “I think they need to create more people talking about it and have this kind of atmosphere the rest of the games.
“A bit more entertainment and get more people really talking about rugby, that would be great.”