A Day at the Rugby in Tokyo

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Tokyo-based journalist Mark Pickering shares his experience of attending the Japanese Top League final between Suntory Goliath and the Panasonic Wild Knights in Tokyo on the weekend.


As the sprawling Tokyo metropolis awakes and the spring sunshine energises its sea of humanity, it appears, on the surface, to be a Sunday morning like any other in Japan’s capital only that on this day some of the world’s finest rugby players are in town for the last Top League final.  


A never-ending stream of traffic races through the streets while a heavy flow of convenience-craving customers turn to their favourite convenience stores, retail stores open their doors and the footfall increases along Stadium-dori street where Beauden Barrett’s table-topping Suntory Sungoliath are set to meet Hadleigh Parkes’ first-placed Panasonic Wild Knights.


As I sip on my morning caffeine injection outside the most well-known coffee chain in Tokyo, it offers a moment to superficially delve into the respective seasons of today’s finalists. 


This is of course is the most anticipated game of the final Top League season as the Japan Rugby Football Union will introduce a new fully professional league in 2022 with details still to be fully clarified. The COVID-19 hit season, which started in February instead of January and with limited capacity crowds, saw favourites Suntory claim the Red Conference with a perfect record (P7, W7) while their fellow finalists Panasonic also went unbeaten (P7, W6, D1) to clinch the White Conference.


The much-beloved Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground, which has charm and history in abundance, and its somewhat outdated aesthetics are part of its refreshing appeal in a world were stadiums are all too perfect, is being prepared for a bumper day of rugby with a sold out crowd in town as the sport’s meteoric rise in the country shows no signs of abating.   


Suntory and Panasonic merchandise tents are being erected within the grounds while passers by can’t help but cast their eyes over the giant Top League poster on the main entrance to the ground. As a result of Japan’s heroics in the last two World Cup’s and their magnificent delivery of the 2019 instalment, rugby is now a leading sport here and is part of the fabric of Japanese society. 


Fans underwent temperature checks on the way into the stadium


As a care-free group of young baseball players rush past me with unbridled enthusiasm and kit bags the same size as them, in addition to matching face masks, the sun starts to bear down on Tokyo’s populace. Umbrella’s are the defensive weapon of choice by residents who have to cope with soaring summer temperatures of 40 degrees and upwards.


Along the intersection beside the wonderfully-convenient Gaiemmae Subway Station, which will be flocking with fans closer to kick-off, there’s an added intensity to proceedings with an increased sense of urgency as everyone goes about their business for the day and enjoys their weekend while the Olympic host city remains in an extended state of emergency.


Stadium-dori street offers its own microcosm of Tokyo, with Meiji Jingu stadium, home to baseball outfit Tokyo Yakult Swallows, just a Barrett punt away from Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground next door while the new National Stadium looms large in the background.


To a first-time visitor Tokyo stimulates your senses to their full capacity but your mind and yours eyes eventually adjust to the all too familiar sight of giant LED advertising boards as the incessant sound of traffic and occasional shop member’s audible plea for your custom all become background noise.


As kick off approaches, the general flow of people around the ground now have striking differences to the morning rush. With several hours until kick off passers by are now noticeably cutting a wider frame and are generally taller and its fair to make the assumption that most have almost certainly played the game at some point.


The pre-match build-up traditionally centres around a British-themed pub next to the ground but it is closed today due to the ongoing state of emergency and the presence of its charismatic and popular manager Shun-san, himself a devoted rugby man, is dearly missed.  


Rugby lovers gather on mass outside the ground ahead of the gates being opened with mobile phones snapping away at the Top League final branding and lapping up the atmosphere. The Yellow and black shirts of Suntory and blue shirts of Panasonic are the overwhelming presence which is to be expected from two of the leagues true heavy hitters who contested the final in 2008 and 2012 with the former coming out on top on both occasions.


Beauden Barrett has proven to be a hit with fans in Japan


Throngs of media fulfil their quota of pre-match shots of the fans before rushing inside the stadium as corporate staff members from Suntory and Panasonic arrive at the ground en masse for a game which could have filled any stadium in the country in pre-pandemic times.


Fans are encouraged to enter the ground early to go through the protocols such as having their temperature checked and receiving hand sanitiser and they are so enthused about witnessing a historic final that there quickly becomes a build-up of human traffic albeit with a fair degree of social distancing.


As fans flow into the stadium the players are already on the pitch warming up and Japan’s national broadcaster NHK, who are carrying the game live, are understandably focused on a certain two-time World Rugby Player of The Year who has shone this campaign for the Sunwolves.


After the players vacate the field and with most fans in position to watch what is guaranteed to be and absorbing game of rugby the faces of fans and the families of the players take on a different complexion as they, in my mind, seem consumed by the thought of where Japanese rugby’s top prize will be destined for today and the vibrant atmosphere is forsaken for a new level of gravity and seriousness.


Fans temporarily savour some Rugby World Cup 2019 nostalgia as the heart trembling pre-match song, Meduza feat. Goodboys – Piece Of Your Heart, plays out in all its hypnotic majesty.


That lively number, which sent fans racing for a particular song-recognition app on their phones, was promptly followed by a 10 second countdown to kick-off after windswept flags and steadfast fanfare had greeted both teams onto the field.


“Japan astronaut Akihito Hoshide was on hand on a video screen inside the ground for the countdown from the International Space Station as the crowd joined in and the final 80 minutes of a highly-entertaining domestic campaign in Japan were upon us.”


With all eyes on Beauden Barrett, the New Plymouth native opened proceedings against a Panasonic team that featured Japanese wing wizard Kenki Fukuoka in his final game and a trio of newcomers to the host country’s national team as Ben Gunter, Dylan Riley and Jack Cornelsen all aimed to stake a claim for selection against the British and Irish Lions test in June.


Riley made an immediate impression as he intercepted a stray Barrett pass for a runaway try after four minutes.


Panasonic took control of the game and the in-form Fukuoka scored a trademark try as he beat two Suntory players to touch down in the corner ahead of his premature retirement at the age of 28 to embark on a career in the medical profession as a doctor. Fukuoka confidently touched down before hitting the flag for a popular score and his try was converted by Japanese international Rikiya Matsuda before Barrett converted a brilliant individual effort from Ryoto Nakamura to leave Suntory trailing 7-23 at the break.


Suntory struck first just one minute into the second half as winger Nakazuru completed a great team effort and Barrett did the honours to bring the deficit to 15-23 with almost a full half of rugby to play.


Panasonic showed their character to fire back after 55 minutes as replacement prop and Japanese international Asaeli Ai Valu drove over after tremendous forward play from the Ota-based team.


After the hour mark Barrett switched to full-back while his counterpart for Panasonic, Matsuda, was replaced by Takuya Yamasawa after injuring himself during his conversion attempt.


After a missed penalty from Yamasawa, Suntory replacement Naoto Saito, a former Waseda University captain, profited from tremendous play by Sean McMahon who not only blocked a grubber kick but also beat a string of Panasonic players to salvage the loose ball and set a flowing counter-attacking move in motion which ended with Saito going over and Barrett converted his effort to bring the score to 19-28 with 10 minutes remaining.


All the momentum was with Suntory and a spectacular climax to the season was all but ensured in the latest advert for the ever-increasing quality of Japanese Rugby.


Panasonic were gifted a penalty after 73 minutes and second choice fly-half Yamasawa extended his team’s lead to 12 points with six minutes left on the clock.


Kenki Fukuoka was playing his final game in the Top League to pursue a medical career


Utility back Seiya Ozaki gave Suntory a glimmer of hope with a 78th minute score and an accelerated Barrett conversion handed his team a lifeline with the score set at 24-31.  


Panasonic kicked to Suntory and it was the last chance for the latter as corporate employees and family members alike dared to look and dared to dream with one minute remaining.


Sean Mahon, who has been an integral part of Suntory’s winning run this season, made a break but failed to find a teammate with a long pass and Panasonic salvaged the ball to wrap up a fitting finale for the Top League.


Winning winger Fukuoka, who has scored 25 tries in 38 test matches for Japan, was all smiles as the Japanese flyer signed off in style and the final whistle was met with a rich round of applause as the crowd showed their appreciation for a thrilling game that ended the end of an era for the domestic game here.


Panasonic captain Atsushi Sakate and his outgoing colleague Fukuoka addressed the crowd with some typically classy remarks before Barrett was called upon look back on his first season outside of his homeland.  


“It’s the end of a great year, I’ve loved my time here at Suntory, it’s been a great season for us, we’re sad we couldn’t finish the job, but full credit to Panasonic, they took their opportunities and deserved it,” said Rugby World Cup 2015 winner Barrett as it finally dawned upon fans that this was his final game in Japan.  


Panasonic Wild Knights players acknowledge their fans following the final whistle


“It’s a great competition to be part of, I’ve loved the speed, the skill level and I’m looking forward to taking what I’ve learned back home to New Zealand. I’ve really cherished my time at Suntory, our fans have been awesome and we know it’s been a tough time for you, it’s been a very challenging season, but I really did feel your support and I thank you for that.”


As the Japanese interviewer continued to try to steer Barrett into a flattering appraisal of his time in Japan, it’s been clear all season that not only has the league’s leading light enjoyed his rugby but he’s savoured his Japan experience and his words come with clarity and from the heart in his farewell appearance.


“I hope I’ve added value to the game here, I’ve enjoyed playing with my teammates, I hope they’ve enjoyed my company.


“Thank you to the fans, hopefully I’ll come back soon, I can see all the support especially in the yellow jerseys in the stands, we’ve had a great season and I will now look forward to spending my last few days here. Hopefully I can come back soon.”


Japanese fans reluctantly left the stadium following a send-off to their respective teams and this season have, like during the Rugby World Cup, memories to treasure having witnessed the greats of the game ply their trade in rugby’s fastest-developing country and Japan’s love affair with rugby is only getting stronger thanks to the domestic game reaching a new level with once unthinkable cameo’s from players such as Barrett and, in the not too distant future, the gentleman’s game will no doubt be empowered with a worldwide fanbase descending on stadiums throughout the world.


Suntory Goliath thank the fans post-match


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