Find out what fans can expect at next year’s Rugby World Cup
What it’s like to watch a rugby match in Japan
Next September, October and November, thousands of rugby fans from around the world will descend on various points across Japan for the 2019 World Cup – but what’s it like to watch a rugby match in Japan?
Rugby World was at Yokohama’s Nissan Stadium at the weekend for the third Bledisloe Cup tie of 2018, with the New Zealand v Australia fixture attracting a record crowd for a Test match in Japan of 46,143.
The promenade leading up to the stadium, which will host next year’s World Cup semi-finals and final as well as four pool games, was bustling before kick-off, with pockets of Australians and New Zealanders interspersed amongst Japanese fans donning the colours of both teams as well of their own national team.
There were games to introduce children to rugby, such as throwing a rugby ball to knock over skittles, and a huge koala mascot proved popular too.
One fan we met, Yosuke, had a foot in both camps, wearing a Wallabies shirt and having an All Blacks towel around his neck. He’d spent his honeymoon in Australia while Beauden Barrett is his favourite player, hence the divided loyalties.
He’d been playing rugby since primary school while others we met were attending their first game. Takashi was most looking forward to seeing the haka while Shin, who was wearing his All Blacks jersey with pride, discovered rugby through the last World Cup, Japan’s famous win over South Africa taking the sport to a wider audience. Ask him why he supports New Zealand and the answer is simple: “They are the best.”
So it proved on the pitch as the All Blacks won 37-20 and Barrett showed his impressive range of skills. In the 50th minute, there was the pace to get past Marika Koroibete on the wing and then the ability to kick the ball off the outside of his boot after cutting in field, and it could have led to a try but for Bernard Foley diving on the loose ball before Barrett could regather.
Nine minutes later, Barrett passed the ball out to Rieko Ioane, looped around his winger and took the return pass to sprint over for a well-worked try. Then he turned provider for Ioane in the closing stages with a pass through his legs to release the winger.
Related: All Blacks fly-half Beauden Barrett analysed
The crowd clearly knew their rugby with ‘oohs’ here and ‘aahs’ there for big tackles and powerful line bursts. Waisake Naholo, who was in the press box to commentate on New Zealand radio, and the non-playing Wallabies seated nearby were also asked for plenty of autographs and photos at half-time.
Yet for all their appreciation of the game’s big moments, there were huge periods where the stadium was very quiet. At some points the respectful silence meant you could hear shouts from the players on the pitch.
There is no culture for chants or songs during rugby matches in Japan, although howling has been introduced at Sunwolves games, and the haka probably brought the biggest cheers of the afternoon. There were attempts to start Mexican waves in the second half, but they didn’t catch on throughout the crowd.
Yes, the stadium wasn’t full and many of the spectators were neutrals, but it was a strange atmosphere, almost eerily quiet at times, when compared to the noise of, say, the Principality Stadium in Cardiff.
Come the World Cup there will obviously be more travelling fans and they will bring their traditional songs and chants with them, and perhaps the Japanese supporters get involved in those.
The players didn’t seem to mind the quiet and were quick to praise both the atmosphere and their welcome in Japan.
“It was awesome to see the crowd that turned out,” said All Blacks skipper Kieran Read. “The atmosphere was fantastic out there and we’ve had an awesome week. We’re really looking forward to next year.”
Wallabies captain Michael Hooper, who played Japan in Yokohama last year, added: “We could here the atmosphere from the crowd at big moments, like big tackles or a line break for both teams. You could hear that on the pitch and love being part of that as a rugby player. It felt like the crowd was engaged.
“Every time we come here we feel very welcome. It’s two very different cultures and we’re learning a lot about the Japanese culture and embracing that when we come over.”
This match may have been quiet but the goal is for next year’s World Cup to be loud both in the stadiums and in terms of its impact.
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