Spectator sport

Why rugby is a perfect match for Japanese culture

5 October 2019

9:00 AM

5 October 2019

9:00 AM

The ITV set for the channel’s thunderingly good coverage of the Rugby World Cup is more Japanese than anything in Japan. And after the Brave Blossoms’ quite sensational victory over the Irish team — until recently rated world No. 1 — we need more Japaneseyness. More sushi. More Hiroshige. More Hokusai.

We should never lose sight of how remarkable Japanese rugby is. The country has had a love affair with the game for more than 150 years. It’s all about konjo — the Japanese word for discipline, endurance, sacrifice, sincerity, courage, strength. There’s the samurai warrior for you: not somebody to mess with but deeply honourable too.

They don’t look like natural rugby players, the Japanese, being considerably smaller than, say, your average Springbok. But they whacked the Boks four years ago in one of rugby’s most thrilling climaxes. And here, with speed of thought and execution, energy and drive, they have been unbeatable.

Rugby, with its emphasis on team spirit, respect for the laws (up to a point, m’lord), controlled and inexhaustible aggression, as well as precision planning, is ideally suited to a Japanese culture. Their final group match against Scotland could be one of the games of the decade. In the meantime, there is Japan v. Samoa to look forward to this weekend.

Talking of Samoa, spare a thought for the Pacific Islands, mercilessly plundered by the Tier 1 nations, but really the true cradle of world rugby. Look at players like the Vunipola brothers, and Tuilagi for England, Ireland’s Bundee Aki, Kuridrani and Koroibete for Australia, France’s Vahaamina, the Kiwis’ Lualala, to name a few. The Islands need helping out: imagine a Pacific Island version of the British Lions touring Europe every four years in November — the Pacific Warriors. Three Tests and a few warm-up games with a massive sponsor like Nike. It would be wonderful rugby and would start to give something back to the islands.

Dina Asher-Smith has a smile to brighten the dingiest Doha darkness and a personality to light up Manchester. She’s smart as a diamond, and almost too clean-cut to be true … oh, and she’s the fastest Brit in the world. It’s impossible not to love her.

The Qataris have messed up this World Athletics Championship and so has International Athletics. You feel for Dina having to smash records in a stadium where the press box outnumbered the crowd. Sport should end its obsession with this region until it proves it can handle sport properly. But don’t wait up for that to happen.

Readers with a Freedom Pass may well remember the name of Dorothy Hyman, one of the remarkable women who paved the way for Dina. Hyman, now 73, was from Barnsley. She picked up numerous medals at European Championships and Commonwealth Games; and, at the epoch-changing 1960 Rome Olympics, a silver and bronze in the 100m and 200m. In a touching interview with the Barnsley Chronicle recently she said: ‘That Olympics was very, very special. I did much better than most people expected. My father said that if I won gold, he would buy me a radio-gram. I got silver and bronze and asked one of the athletes if that will add up to a radiogram.’ It did.

‘It might not sound like much compared to what sportspeople get these days but I was a 19-year-old girl from Barnsley and it was fantastic for me.’ Her career ended in 1964 after she wrote an autobiography called Sprint to Fame. It earned her the princely sum of £150 but meant she could never represent her country again as she was classed a ‘professional’. Different times. But what a spirit.

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