While the All Blacks and Wallabies were doing their bit to woo Japanese rugby fans at last weekend’s Bledisloe Cup match at Nissan Stadium, another group of Antipodean rugby players were in Japan doing an equally important job.
Children from Lindfield Rugby Club in Australia and Glenmark-Cheviot Rugby Club in New Zealand took part in a number of events with rugby schools from Kanagawa Prefecture in the days either side of the big match culminating in an all-day extravaganza at Yokohama Country and Athletic Club.
And the young visitors left just as much of an impression as the likes of Beauden Barrett and David Pocock.
“It was a great memory interacting with the New Zealand and Australian children,” said 11-year-old Lee Dante, a player with Yokohama YC Rugby School.
“It was especially good to see the haka of the New Zealand children. We live far from each other, but I hope we can meet again through rugby. And I wonder if I will see some of them play in a Bledisloe Cup game someday.”
Peter Gibson, the man responsible for bringing over the two international sides, explained the concept of the event.
“Ex-Japan captain Toshiyuki Hayashi and his group formed an NPO called Heroes and they run the national under-12 rugby championship throughout the 47 prefectures of Japan,” said the 53-year-old Australian.
“The Heroes Cup is now in its 10th year and last year to coincide with the Wallabies versus Japan game, Hayashi decided to put on a junior rugby festival with sides from Australia and Japan. This year to coincide with the Bledisloe Cup he asked me to arrange teams from New Zealand and Australia.”
Gibson said much of the credit should go to Yokohama City, Kanagawa Prefecture, and Aussie Beef for making the tour possible.
“We look to partner with children’s sport and rugby seems the most natural fit,” said Andrew Cox, the man who oversees Meat and Livestock Australia’s operations in Japan and South Korea.
In addition to playing a number of sides in Japan, the visitors watched the Bledisloe match at the ground that will host the final of next year’s Rugby World Cup. The following day, at the oldest rugby club in Asia, they got a coaching clinic from among others former Australia coach Robbie Deans, Rugby World Cup 1999 winner Matt Cockbain and Japan’s most capped player Hitoshi Ono.
Gibson, who will be bringing over 2,500 Australians to Japan next year for the Rugby World Cup in his role with Gullivers Sports Travel, said it had been great seeing the kids interact.
“It’s been interesting to watch,” Gibson said. “The Aussie kids are a little more robust, while many of the Kiwi kids are from a very small town in North Canterbury, Many haven’t even been out of New Zealand or seen the All Blacks play live.
“But the interaction has been sensational. You only had to see when we brought a couple of Japanese kids over to play with the Kiwi kids and they put the jersey on, the Japanese kids were besides themselves with how good it was.”
And the visiting children were equally impressed by their hosts off and on the field.
“I really like the culture and tradition. Everything is so clean and the people are so respectful and work as a team,” said Joe Andronicus, a 12-year-old prop with the Lindfield juniors from Sydney.
“They play a lot faster here and the backs score a lot of tries,” said Jim Dickson, an 11-year-old flanker from the Glenmark-Cheviot club.
All the children spoken too said they would love to return to Japan for next year’s Rugby World Cup, and some could be returning even earlier.
Next year Gibson and Hayashi will be putting on the Kids World Rugby Festival on April 20-21, 2019, and inviting eight or nine sides from overseas to take part.
“They are purposively going to invite junior rugby sides from Russia, Samoa, Scotland and Ireland as they are in Japan’s pool at Rugby World Cup. And we are also inviting teams from France, Australia and the USA,” Gibson said.
As the Australian, who is on his 77th trip to Japan, pointed out.
“There has been a lot of talk about (the World Cup’s) legacy but I think it is only talk. The people from Heroes Cup and Kanagawa rugby association are walking the talk. I believe they are truly going to push as hard as they can to change things in Japanese rugby after the World Cup. They put their money where their mouth is.”
Rich Freeman writes about rugby for Kyodo News and can be heard talking about it during Sunwolves’ home games.