With the bōnenkai (year-end party) season in full swing, it is time to look back at a special year of rugby in Japan while also trying to predict what the future holds.
And what better way to do it than in traditional karaoke style with some song suggestions (and apologies for my outdated choice in music) for those that made the news.
1. “Top of the World.” While “We are the Champions” was blasted out at International Stadium Yokohama on Nov. 2 after South Africa won the Rugby World Cup for the third time, the Carpenters’ classic is perhaps more appropriate. Having become the first team to lift the Webb Ellis Cup despite losing a game in the pool stage, the Springboks rightly finished the year on top of the world rankings.
2. Siya Kolisi. Such was the impact made by the Springboks captain — not just on the field but in his ability to lead the side and represent his country — that Robbie Wessels wrote a song in honor of the South Africa flanker. “The song is also about how the Springboks’ World Cup victory brought us together as a nation,” said Wessels. “It’s about Siya Kolisi and the role he played in unifying us. I hope it motivates anyone who has been in difficult circumstances to take on life’s challenges and to try make a success of their lives.”
3. “Heroes.” The Brave Blossoms did not just reach their goal of a spot in the quarterfinals at the World Cup but won over rugby fans worldwide with the brand of rugby they played. The number of non-Japanese at games wearing red and white and the huge interest among locals ensured Michael Leitch and his teammates were, in September and October, heroes for more than David Bowie’s “one day.”
4. “Bad Case of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor).” Kenki Fukuoka’s two tries against Scotland sent pulses soaring and ensured the wing’s status as one of the best players in the world. But the 27-year-old is set to give it all up following the 2021 Top League season in order to go to medical school. Japanese and international fans may have one last chance of singing “Doctor Doctor, gimme the news I got a bad case of lovin’ you,” as Fukuoka hopes to become a double Olympian by playing sevens at Tokyo 2020.
5. “Too Hard to Handle.” Kazuki Himeno had a standout World Cup both with ball in hand and on defense. But one moment showed he also has that something extra that it takes to be a world-class back-row forward. In the crunch game against Scotland, a scuffle broke out between Jamie Ritchie and Yu Tamura. Despite being one of the youngest players on the field, Himeno was the first to rush in to protect his flyhalf and prove, as Otis Redding sang, that “mama I’m sure hard to handle now.”
6. “Tears of a Clown.” Fumiaki Tanaka has been the epitome of the cheeky scrumhalf, but at the recent parade to honor the Brave Blossoms things got too much. Tanaka’s tears were of joy as Japan finally broke into the big time. But as the 34-year-old veteran knows only too well — following a speech four years ago berating the Japan Rugby Football Union for not building on the success of RWC 2015 — it is easy to talk the talk. Walking the walk is something different.
7. “Make Me Smile (Come up and See Me).” Keita Inagaki scored arguably the try of the year in Japan’s defeat of Scotland, but the Japan prop is known by many as the man who never smiles. Students at the prop’s alma mater, however, were very much smiling when Inagaki donated ¥3 million to the high school in Niigata to ensure the rugby field was no longer gravel but grass.
8. “The Heat is On.” World Rugby has talked a lot about player welfare, yet its decision to regard Japan as a Southern Hemisphere nation, meaning Japan has to play at home in the summer and travel to Europe in the fall, sees the Brave Blossoms playing back-to-back tests against England at home in July 2020. If that is not bad enough, the games will be played in the Kyushu heat in Oita and the cauldron that is Noevir Stadium in Kobe.
9. “The Tide is Turning.” The World Cup was supposed to be the event that united and boosted Asian rugby. Yet following the tournament there was a changing of the guard with Asia Rugby founding members Japan and Hong Kong delegates losing out and power in the executive committee heading to the United Arab Emirates. In the aftermath, there were accusations and counter accusations in the Sri Lanka press regarding how the voting had been carried out. Roger Waters sang “Who is the best, Who holds the aces, The East Or the West.” We will find out soon.
10. “Suspicious Minds.” The JRFU has talked a lot about legacy following the successful staging of the World Cup but as longtime observers of rugby here have pointed out, nothing concrete seems to have been put into place. The national team has some prime fixtures lined up, but talk of a new professional league is on hold and the powers-that-be want to build a museum with the money made from RWC 2019 rather than investing it all in developing the game at the grassroots level and changing the antiquated way the sport is run. Actions not words are needed — and quickly — to ensure the wave of support rugby received during September and October is not lost.
Happy New Year, everyone.
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