Get an insight into the magazine team’s adventures – and calamities! – in Japan during the tournament
Rugby World’s 2019 World Cup Diary
Day Eighteen – Saturday 5 October
This was my first chance to see the quarter-final venue in Oita. It’s a fair way from Oita station – about half an hour by bus – and appears on the horizon almost like a spaceship as the silver dome glistens in the sunlight.
We’d been warned it would be hot and sticky by those who had been at New Zealand v Canada in midweek but it was actually a very pleasant temperature, the breeze flowing in from the open ends certainly helping while the humidity wasn’t quite as bad. Plus, I now had my fan!
The majority of the crowd for Australia v Uruguay were in gold, but there were still points when the South Americans were getting the biggest cheer and it was great to see them score a deserved try at the game. Having been at this same fixture four years ago, it was clear Uruguay have made strides forward.
Match report: Australia 45-10 Uruguay
After the bus ride back to the station, a few of us headed to the fanzone for Japan v Samoa. There was only one big screen and that indoor area was already full, but there were big crowds surrounding normal-sized TV screens dotted around the area, like a series of giant living rooms outdoors. The smallness of the screen didn’t dampen the locals’ enthusiasm and a last-minute bonus point led to plenty of cheering.
Day Seventeen – Friday 4 October
A day in Otsu – a small town a ten-minute train ride from Kyoto – to see Wales. I’ve spent most of my time in Japan in big cities so this was a real change of pace.
Otsu is situated near Lake Biwa – the largest lake in Japan – and a relaxing stroll along the waterfront was the perfect way to start the day. After having a sit-down with Leigh Halfpenny – read his interview in the next issue of Rugby World – I was asked to appear on the ScrumV Daily podcast. Hopefully I made a bit of sense…
Post-training in the afternoon, Wales held a coaching session with local kids and even though there are no World Cup matches in Otsu, it was clear the Welsh visit has captured imaginations in the area.
Day Sixteen – Thursday 3 October
An early start to catch the train from Hakata to Osaka for the afternoon kick-off between Georgia and Fiji. I dragged a fellow scribe to Dotonbori before we headed to the stadium as apparently no visit to Osaka is complete without trying the local delicacy: octopus balls.
Don’t worry these aren’t literally testicles! It’s diced octopus in a pancake batter and finished off with a few rice crispies (at least that’s what it looked like to us!) in a ball shape. Watching them being cooked is fascinating as the liquid mix bubbles away until they are artfully flicked over to finish cooking and create the ball. A sauce and some fish flakes finish it off – and they were damn tasty. Highly recommended if you’re in Osaka.
Onwards to the match! Hanazono Stadium is a proper rugby ground and those in attendance were treated to an entertaining game. It may be smaller than a lot of the other venues but you’re much closer to the action as there’s no athletics track and the stands aren’t really steep. A perfect viewing position to see Fijian flair close-up.
Match report: Georgia 10-45 Fiji
Day Fifteen – Wednesday 2 October
A sore head – okay, hangover! – limited productivity but I was back in working order for France v USA. Plus, I’d made my most important purchase of the World Cup to date: a fan. There’s no sign of the temperature or humidity dropping so this should help me *try* to stay cool.
The stadium in Fukuoka is near the airport – a short train ride from Hakata – and it’s an impressive ground. While both sides are covered, the ends are open and when the rain came down during the anthems there was a massive rush from those exposed supporters to don their ponchos.
There was a big group of Japanese fans in front of the press box all wearing mini stars-and-stripes flags in their caps, but while the Eagles gave it a good crack the French ran away with it in the last 15 minutes.
Match report: France 33-9 USA
Day Fourteen – Tuesday 1 October
A travel day as I headed west to Fukuoka on the island of Kyushu – home for the next few weeks. The view from the train was a lot greener than the other journeys I’d done so far and with no game that evening there was a chance to explore with the BBC 5 Live crew.
We set off in search of the famous food stalls (yatai) in Nakasu, but let’s just say we’re not the great navigators of our generation and were about to give up when we suddenly turned the corner and there they were, lined up alongside the waterfront.
We perused the various options before deciding on a bowl of ramen and chicken skewers (thumbs up for the ramen, 50-50 on the skewers!) – all washed down with a large Asahi of course.
It was interesting to see the mix of fans out and about. Obviously there were French and USA supporters in situ, but we also bumped into a German couple who’d bought tickets when Germany were still in the mix for a place at RWC 2019 via the repechage. Even though their team didn’t make it, they decided to head out to Japan and were off to New Zealand v Canada in Oita the following day.
Having received a perplexed look when we ordered a second beer, we decided to move on to another stall where we sampled the plum wine (umeshu) – delicious but, going by the headache I woke up with the following day, more alcoholic than it tastes!
We also bumped into some French journalists and soon there was a rousing rendition of La Marseillaise – a good way to round off an evening!
Day Thirteen – Monday 30 September
The day started by squeezing onto the Tokyo subway during rush hour – best avoided where possible! I had an early train back to Kobe so had to get across the capital from my hotel in Shinjuku to Tokyo station. A few stops into the journey a lot of people in the carriage were getting off, so I tried to step to the side to clear a path. That didn’t work. Instead, I was carried along in the surge of people onto the platform and then had to clamber to the side in order to re-board. Thankfully there was more space after that.
Back in Kobe and luggage sent onward to my next base in Fukuoka, there was just enough time to fit in a spot of sight-seeing before the Scotland v Samoa match. Nestled behind Shin-Kobe station are the Nunobiki Waterfalls. It took a while to find the route – you go through a tunnel to the side of the station entrance – but all of a sudden you’re in a beautiful wooded area. You can hear it before you see it, but walk a few hundred metres uphill and it appears. Beautiful and tranquil – a world away from the bustle of the city.
Spot of tourism done, it was time to head back to the sweltering Kobe Misaki Stadium. While the game itself was error-strewn and not that enjoyable for me personally, particularly in the uncomfortable heat, there was a moment en route to the ground that stood out.
Walking past a playground, there were a few kids on the swings and some others playing football, but there was also a group of three or four with a couple of rugby balls. They were maybe four or five years old and the balls were bigger than their heads, but they were having fun and it was great to see youngsters engaged in the sport. No doubt Japan’s win over Ireland at the weekend helped!
Day Twelve – Sunday 29 September
Back in Tokyo for the big one in Pool D: Australia v Wales. The train was full of gold and red jerseys, one particular Japanese couple showing their support for both sides with one wearing an Australia shirt and the other a Wales jersey. There was lively buzz at the stadium too.
I didn’t get to watch all of Georgia-Uruguay beforehand, but I did notice Milton Haig feeling the heat in the Kumagawa stands…
As for the match in Tokyo, it was like so many Australia-Wales matches over the past decade in that it was incredibly tight. The difference was that this time the Welsh held on for the win whereas the Wallabies have so often scored late winners.
Match report: Australia 25-29 Wales
There was also a touching/comedy (delete as appropriate) moment at the end when Alun Wyn Jones kissed George North…
It follows Jonathan Davies telling the Wales captain “I love you” after the Grand Slam win earlier this year. It’s clearly a tightly-knit squad.
The only sour note came on the train journey back to Shinjuku. A Wallaby fan flouted all Japanese train customs by ignoring the 20 or so people waiting in the queue for a certain set of doors to walk right in front of them and push his way on first, then squeezed his sizeable frame onto the priority seats and start singing Waltzing Matilda. I’d prefer to see a little more respect shown.
Day Eleven – Saturday 28 September
What a day! I was lucky enough to be in Brighton when Japan stunned the Springboks four years ago and while that remains rugby’s greatest shock, their win over Ireland in Shizuoka was just as good, if not better.
It was certainly the most atmospheric RWC 2019 match that I’ve experienced to date while Japan’s performance was much more dominant and controlled than against South Africa in 2015. And it’s brilliant to see a team so willing to spread the ball wide at such pace. A privilege to be there.
Related: All hail Japan’s Brave Blossoms
The post-match mixed zone is where players from each team are grabbed by different media outlets for interviews. It’s chaotic at the best of times but after a Japan win more so! I was standing at a particular spot along the barrier (they don’t let us get too close!) when Shota Horie walked through and was positioned close to where I was standing. Suddenly I was surrounded by Japanese journalists looking to speak to the hooker – there’s no orderly queuing in this situation – and had to duck out the back of the giant huddle.
Before the match, it was brilliant to see so much going on around Aino station, which is the closest stop to the ground. There were traditional festival floats, myriad food stalls (I particularly liked the one with a sign that said ‘fluffy eggy thing’!) and on-stage performances like Japanese drumming.
For any fans heading to Shizuoka later in the tournament, here’s a tip: look out for the savvy businesses selling beers en route to the stadium a couple of hundred yen cheaper than in the official Heineken Bar in the fanzone.
Perhaps my off-field highlight, though, was the conveyor belt leading up to the stadium. There is a set of stairs to take you to the main walkway but when there’s the option of a conveyor belt, it would be rude not to try it!
Day Ten – Friday 27 September
A heavy work day, but I did get the chance to wander down to the waterfront, which was buzzing with a street food market and live music. With a Ferris wheel, the Kobe Port Tower and the Maritime Museum all lit up it was quite a sight.
Then it was on to meet RW writer Tom English in Sannomiya, where we dined on okonomiyaki. It’s hard to describe what this is. A Japanese pancake/omelette/pizza – whatever you want to call it, it was delicious. And cooked on a hot plate in the middle of our table (watch your fingers!).
We rounded the night off with an ice cream sandwich purchased on a street corner – awkward to eat but very tasty – and a mosey along the back streets, dotted with tiny bars and restaurants.
Day Nine – Thursday 26 September
An early start to head to Sakai (two train changes made without hitch!), where I was privileged to spend the day with the Tongan team for a behind-the-scenes feature that will run in a future issue of Rugby World magazine.
It was fascinating to get an insight into not only the rugby side of things but the unique cultural aspects of the squad too.
Then it’s back to Kobe for England v USA, where I headed to the press box early to escape a cramped media room only to regret the decision when I realised how hot the stadium is, even at night. Given its enclosed nature the heat and humidity inside is somewhat oppressive, and it’s little wonder there were numerous handling errors.
Match report: England 45-7 USA
Having conceded seven tries and had a man sent off – rightly I should add – USA coach Gary Gold described the match as “a calamity in Kobe”.
Meanwhile, when asked about how Owen Farrell was after that dangerous hit from John Quill, Eddie Jones responded by saying: “He’s missing part of his nose, but he’s married and has a child so he won’t be looking for any young lass in Kobe tonight!”
Day Eight – Wednesday 25 September
Match-day minus one in Kobe and a chance to check out the stadium as the teams go through their captain’s runs. It’s an impressive enclosed arena, with stands close to the pitch as there is no athletics track around the outside like some of the other stadiums in use during this World Cup.
Back in the media room to watch Fiji v Uruguay play out on TV – and what a game it was. I was fortunate enough to be in Montevideo in 2014 when they beat Russia to qualify for RWC 2015, but the emotion shown at the final whistle in Kamaishi, as this tournament had its first upset, was another step up again. It was brilliant to witness, even from afar.
Day Seven – Tuesday 24 September
Another day, another bullet train. This time from Nagoya to Kobe – my base for the next week. The good news on arrival at my hotel was that my suitcase was already waiting for me – a day ahead of schedule. Japanese efficiency.
It was not quite the same when heading to an England press conference, where Joe Cokanasiga was among those complaining about the poor wifi at their hotel.
Dan Cole and Joe Marler proved to be something of a front-row double act when put up to speak to the media together. Marler may be known for his jokes, but it was Cole who delivered the best one-liner this time.
While Marler was talking about how Cokanasiga is quite quiet and does his talking on the pitch, Cole quipped: “Is that why you talk so much?”
Day Six – Monday 23 September
Time for the first bullet train of the trip, which whisks me from Yokohama to Nagoya, then it’s a couple of changes to get to Toyotashi for the Wales v Georgia match.
Before catching that, though, I should also mention that I tried out a different button on the hotel toilet before leaving. It was marked ‘Kids’ and I was intrigued to see if it would make the seat smaller. Instead a spurt of water came out and hit the facing wall. Oops! Probably safest to just stick with the heated option.
I’ve also embraced the Japanese custom of forwarding luggage, sending my suitcase onto Kobe while I’ve stopped off in Toyota and it should meet me there on Wednesday. It was brilliant not to have to find space on the train for it, but I’ll only count it as a success if the suitcase arrives!
Back to the rugby and it was brilliant to see so many people caught up in the atmosphere on the 20-minute walk from the station to the stadium. There were people singing the Welsh anthem, kids giving rugby a go, stalls set up down the street… Then the stadium emerges beyond the Toyotao-ohashi Bridge. It’s an impressive sight.
The steep stands suggested the noise would echo around the stadium but it was actually quite subdued and certainly the quietest match I’ve been to so far. Admittedly, it improved in the second half, the crowd keen to cheer on the trailing Georgians.
Match report: Wales 43-14 Georgia
Post-match there was a touching moment in the media mixed zone when Georgia No 8 Beka Gorgadze asked Josh Navidi if they could swap jerseys and the pair proceeded to have a chat about the tournament as a whole, what they’d seen of Japan and so on. Rugby World was on hand to capture a photo…
Day five – Sunday 22 September
The Irish invade Yokohama! Green jerseys everywhere, as well as plenty of Scots. And again, lots of Japanese supporters wearing either blue or green.
This day also demonstrated the changeable weather in Japan. Watching Italy v Namibia on TV in the media room, it went from blue skies to downpour to blue skies! I have to mention the audacious offload from second-row Federico Ruzza in this match – just brilliant.
A shoutout to this fan, too, who has gone above and beyond in showing his support for different teams – apparently he’s aiming to have his body painted in the shirts of all 20 teams during the tournament…
Beautiful sunshine also spread across the morning skies in Yokohama but it steadily got greyer and the rain came midway through the Ireland v Scotland match. It was still going when we left the stadium several hours later and I’m not sure the hotel staff were too impressed with my drowned rat impression when I arrived back.
Match report: Ireland 27-3 Scotland
While Tonga lost their opening match to England, it was great to see Nasi Manu in action a year after being diagnosed with testicular cancer.
Related: Nasi Manu’s remarkable journey
Day four – Saturday 21 September
A pat on the back after making the journey from Tokyo to Yokohama and finding my hotel without a hitch. Then, having kept track of Australia v Fiji and Argentina v France by radio and TV, it was time for the ‘big one’: New Zealand v South Africa.
What’s been noticeable throughout these early days of the tournament is not only the number of overseas fans in the country but how the Japanese are embracing all teams – not just the Brave Blossoms.
Walking up the promenade to the media entrance at the stadium, local fans were bedecked in All Blacks and Springboks kit of all kinds. We spotted one Japanese fan wearing a South Africa jersey underneath his New Zealand one – he was going to be happy whatever the result.
Before kick-off, a trio of local supporters in All Blacks jerseys situated next to the press box belted out the New Zealand anthem, reciting the words from their phones. Then they turned on their cameras to capture the haka, which was greeted by cheers around the ground.
Match report: New Zealand 23-13 South Africa
The All Blacks are clearly on a charm offensive in Japan too. Taking the lead from the host team, at the end of this match they stood in a line in front of all four sides of the stadium and bowed.
Captain Kieran Read said afterwards: “It’s really important for us to connect as much as we can with the Japanese people. We know they love us as All Blacks and we need to show a little bit of love back. There are plenty of fans with black jerseys, which is fantastic. We want to enjoy the tournament and see as many people as we can and hopefully get some more fans.”
Day three – Friday 20 September
Game day! After a decade of previewing the first Rugby World Cup in Asia, it was now upon us.
Shinjuku is the busiest station in the world and it was almost like the whole planet was represented when strolling through that morning. Myriad accents and rugby jerseys from at least half the countries playing at Japan 2019.
Heading to the ground five hours before kick-off, the train was already full, with supporters donned in red-and-white jerseys, hats and other merchandise. There was a real buzz, even that far out from kick-off.
There were plenty of oohs and aahs during the opening ceremony while chants of ‘Nippon, Nippon’ during the match helped Japan overcome a nervy start against Russia to pick up a bonus point win. The way they applauded the Russia players at the final whistle was classy too.
Match report: Japan 30-10 Russia
It was an unusual feeling to watch a rugby match in September in a T-shirt – the heat and humidity evident even in the evening. And while it hasn’t been universally popular, I particularly like the sounding of the gong to signal half-time and full-time.
The day ended with signing off the next issue of Rugby World magazine while Invictus – the film about RWC 1995 starring Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman – was shown on Japanese TV in the media room. From one historic World Cup to another.
Day two – Thursday 19 September
Toilets are a hot topic when talk turns to Japan and the heated seat is certainly a bonus, but no one mentioned the showers could be complicated too. It took me a good five minutes to figure out how to get the water running – the key switch on the sink tap!
Next challenge was to get to Tokyo Stadium. This should have been easy as a colleague had sent me detailed instructions. However, having followed them exactly and sat on a train for 45 minutes when the journey should have been around 15, I pondered whether they were quite so accurate.
It turns out that rather than changing from a local to a fast train, it should have been the other way around. Upon realising the error – and viewing the Tokyo suburbs for half an hour – I disembarked, crossed platforms and headed back whence I’d came.
Things ran a lot smoother upon reaching the stadium (having passed the brilliant RWC 2019-themed manhole covers en route from the station). Collect accreditation: check. Japan press conference: check. Wifi log-in: check. Argentina captain’s run: check.
The 2019 World Cup was now officially up and running for RW.
Day one – Wednesday 18 September
It all seemed to be going well on arrival in Tokyo. For a start, I’d been ‘recognised’ by a Welsh fan on the flight from Hong Kong. Fame at last! Although, when you’ve been travelling for nearly 24 hours, sometimes you’d rather remain anonymous.
Having negotiated passport control and customs, bought a train ticket to Shinjuku and even managed to change trains without issue, it was time to find my hotel. Unfortunately, there are a couple of Toyoko Inns in Shinjuku and the taxi took me to the wrong one, so after a few minutes I was back in another cab, this time heading to the right address.
By this point it was 11.30pm so after check-in it was time to crash.
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