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30 October 2019updated 25 Jul 2021 3:25pm

Japan’s Rugby World Cup is a glorious reminder that sport has the power to tear down borders

 Far from swallowing it up in apathy, the Japanese have thrown open their arms and welcomed the World Cup into their midst.

By Jonathan Liew

The izakaya restaurant I stumbled across late one night in Yufuin, the little volcanic spring town in the green wilderness of Kyushu, didn’t have a name. It didn’t show up on Google Maps and you couldn’t leave a review on TripAdvisor. It had only around a dozen seats, all but two of which were empty. The only other customers in the place, as it turned out, were a couple from Maidenhead in England rugby shirts.

And so, 6,000 miles from home, over a sumptuous feast of chicken skin dumplings and pork ribs, we chatted away about Eddie Jones and Tom Curry as if it were the most normal thing in the world. Shortly afterwards a group of Australians walked in, which lowered the tone a little, but still the conversation flowed as freely as the local draught ale. Then a nice young couple from Llandaff in Cardiff. Then a pair of middle-aged French guys whose broken English stretched only just far enough to convey their fervent and heartfelt belief that Wales were going to get stuffed.

Multiply this incongruous little tableau by a thousand, several thousand, a million, and you have the 2019 World Cup in Japan. Over the past two months, in the karaoke bars of Shinjuku and the soba joints of Yokohama, countless brief but lasting bonds have been forged: people coming from all four corners of the globe to speak the tipsy but universal language of sport.

To the foreign visitor, Tokyo can feel a little like an urban desert: a vast, alienating swirl of commuters and traffic and blinking billboards and unspoken codes, where the people keep their eyes locked on the pavement, where everything has its place except you. When Japan was awarded the right to host the World Cup a decade ago, there was no telling how it might go; what success might even look like.

This was, after all, a country with virtually no rugby sensibility and very little international pedigree. They had won just a single World Cup game in 20 attempts, conceding almost 1,000 points in the process. Fearful of sluggish ticket sales and empty stadiums, organisers initially pushed to share the tournament with Hong Kong and Singapore. At any rate, there was no portent of the vivid carnival of colour that has seen Japan 2019 widely acclaimed as the greatest World Cup ever.

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If there has been one dominant theme of the tournament so far, it’s been the triumph of curiosity. Both England and South Africa, who will face each other at Yokohama on 2 November in a repeat of the 2007 final, have in their different ways benefited from an openness to new ideas and fresh thinking.

After being ignominiously dumped out of their home tournament four years ago – the sporting equivalent of throwing a magnificent party and then getting yourself locked in the coal shed – England hired Eddie Jones as the first foreign coach in their history. Jones is an abrasive, acerbic Australian with Japanese heritage, and his coaching ethos is based on drawing inspiration from as broad a palette as possible. He reads widely on history and business, cites the likes of Alex Ferguson and Pep Guardiola as influences, and adapts lessons from cricket and NFL that he feels he can use in his own sport.

At a granular level, too, the England team has made a virtue of its diversity. The last England team to win the World Cup in 2003 fielded just a single player – Jason Robinson – from an ethnic minority background. This squad has 11 such players, born as far apart as Ohio and Samoa, and in their 19-7 demolition of the garlanded All Blacks in the 26 October semi-final, you could see those influences playing off each other: urban grit and rural graft, public school obstinacy and Pacific island durability. “No man is an island,” says Maro Itoje, the indomitable second-row forward born to Nigerian parents in that traditional rugby heartland of Camden. “Diversity is our biggest strength.”

As for South Africa, a reliance on traditional Springbok virtues – a physical forward line, a tough and ugly style of play – has been meshed with a willingness to embrace the new. One of the biggest decisions coach Rassie Erasmus made on taking over the side in 2018 was installing Siya Kolisi as their first black captain. At a stroke, it shifted public perceptions of a team that for much of its history has been closely associated with the white establishment. Erasmus also worked to build bridges with the country’s four regional franchises, which have so often been at loggerheads with the national side.

But perhaps the greatest triumph has been Japan itself. Far from swallowing it up in apathy, the Japanese have thrown open their arms and welcomed the World Cup into their midst. Having a scintillating team to support has helped, of course, and few could have foreseen the thrilling panache with which the Brave Blossoms surged to the quarter-finals on a wave of public euphoria, innovative attacking rugby and television audiences that touched 60 million.

Even their elimination by South Africa has failed to extinguish the enthusiasm. All over Tokyo during semi-final weekend, you could see locals blazoning their new allegiances: Japanese in Springboks jerseys, Japanese fans in Ireland green, a group of particularly spirited fans who turned up at the Wales vs South Africa game wielding giant plastic leeks. The players, for their part, have responded by bowing to all four corners of the stadium after games.

There’s been a dreamlike quality to all this at times: a fleeting and transitory dream perhaps, but a reminder that in a world increasingly hitching up its borders, sport has the power to tear them back down again. Now, a rich and breathless bazaar awaits its final, dazzling flourish. 

Jonathan Liew is chief sports writer of the Independent

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This article appears in the 30 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone