Rugby: Japan’s best kept secret

2007-10-30

The dust has settled from Rugby World Cup 2007, but diehards in Tokyo are still lining up for the scrum. Just as Japan's rugby union players are one of the world's largest cadres at 126,000, non-pros also abound - and new talent is always welcome.

Japan sports 30 to 40 amateur rugby leagues in Tokyo, Kanagawa and Chiba alone, and its pro clubs outnumber even New Zealand's, says Joe Fisher. He should know; though only 27, the New Zealander YCAC Rugby Club vice-captain and Tokyo Gaijin Rugby Football Club (TGRFC) coach has been playing since the tender age of 5. Japan co-hosting Soccer World Cup 2002 helped football eclipse the fanfare rugby once enjoyed, but the local amateur scene is as vibrant as ever.

"There are three levels of rugby in Japan: corporate, university and amateur teams," Fisher explains. While corporate players are pros often picked from universities more for rugby than job skills, university teams are pros in training: "The top universities in Japan are very good. Waseda University and Kanto Gakuin (University) are probably two of the best (college) teams in the world.

"Amateur teams have people who have played rugby at some point but now it's just a hobby." Harris says. "For amateurs, the Tokyo Cup is the most well known league. There are four divisions; when you get to the first division you can go on to national amateur games. Then there's the Shuto League, which has two divisions."

Tokyo has four mostly foreign amateur teams - TGRFC, YCAC, Tokyo Crusaders RFC and All France Rugby Club. As with most sports teams, what's in a name? They're all international with up to a third of their 15 to 30 active members being Japanese; they welcome newcomers and like to play as hard off the pitch as on. Like their Japanese counterparts, they may have former college - or even pro - players and take their rugby seriously. But that doesn't mean they all started out that way.

"Tokyo Gaijin was started about 16 years ago by a couple of drinking buddies," says Jeff "Joffa" Harris, 39, a teacher from Australia. The TGRFC manager and flanker is a 25-year veteran who has been with the team 13 years. He says in TGRFC's infancy Sunday games were more about working off hangovers. "I believe they weren't very good. Then a couple of Aussies came along and made the team more serious." It's been serious ever since.

TGRFC takes to the pitch nine months out of the year to play in the Tokyo Cup, Shuto League and Ichihara League. "If we haven't got a game we're training," Harris says, adding the two-hour sessions of sprints and drills gives the team an edge. "It's great for guys that don't even want to play; they can come just to train. It's only once a week so we encourage them to do something else (see "Run into 2008"). We try to give extra playing time to guys that show up for training. A lot of guys say, "I like the fact you train and help out the younger players".

Does all that training pay off? "This year has been quite good," Harris says. TGRFC boasts making it to the finals in the Tokyo Cup and Tama League, being the Hong Kong 10s plate winner and not having lost a match in the Ichihara League for the past two years. But those in the know say Japan's top foreign team, at least for now, is YCAC (Yokohama Country & Athletic Club) Rugby Club.  

"The YCAC is the reason that rugby exist in Japan," boasts Terry Dixon, 32, a banker from the UK who captains and plays hooker for YCAC. "It is a country club founded by the first British foreigners in Japan; they wanted to play rugby but had no opposition." YCAC keeps the venerable tradition of annually commemorating Japan's first rugby match, which pit the club against a Kao University team trained by one of its founders in 1900, with an honorary game.

YCAC doesn't play in leagues, Dixon says, but as the only such team with its own pitch, the club is in a league of its own: "We pick the best teams from anywhere in Japan and play them. We play foreign teams, we play Japanese teams, anyone who wants to come down and enjoy our facilities." That includes two matches a year against each of Tokyo's famed foreign four as well as top Japanese clubs.

YCAC plays from October to March on its home turf where it holds weekly two-month preseason training. Dixon says it ranks among the top three amateur teams with ex-pros who have played for the likes of the All Blacks and Ireland. There's also a less competitive team with members aged 16 to 52 for those who "want to have a jog around park then have a beer." Players on either team must be country club members but he adds exceptions have been made. Bbut there's more than one way to get the ball in a maul.

With 20 years under its belt, All France is more about scoring tries for fun and fitness than competition. It plays in the Shuto and Construction leagues, Sugadaira Rugby Festival, Hiratsuka Beach Football Tournament and tours once a year. "Of the ex-pat clubs in Tokyo, All France is probably the best suited for players without much experience, at least in that we are a relatively low ranked team and it is an environment supportive of guys wanting to come and learn the basics and get involved," says Simon Hollander, 32, a New Zealand-born lawyer and flanker. "More experienced players join us because of the atmosphere."

All France's hallmark is its high percentage of rugby newbies. While many members have played in university or high school it was often not seriously competitive, but the team is serious enough to train weekly with Japanese players at Sofia University during its fall and spring seasons, says Hollander, who got his first taste of the game with the team four years ago: "I get around the park pretty well now, but I love the culture of the club, and appreciate the support I got from the team when I was learning."

Tokyo Crusaders, aka the Cru, is headquartered at Roppongi's Patty Foley's pub and bills itself as a welcoming club as keen on socializing as playing rugby. "We're very much a social club so skill level varies greatly from pros to new players," says Sean Gibson, 37, a broker from the United States, team vice president and second row. "In general, (we're) pretty good."

The 1990 brainstorm of "a couple of guys that wanted to play rugby," as well as watch it, the Crusaders have fall and spring seasons when they play three weekends a month in the Shuto and Construction leagues - "unless it rains," Gibson says. "We also do at least one tour a year like the Bangkok 10s; we're thinking of going to Jakarta this year and have been to Hokkaido and the Philippines."

How much skill is required to join the fun? "None whatsoever," Gibson says. "We'll take anyone; we have a couple of guys that don't play rugby, they just hang out with us." It's a sentiment shared by most teams, which shows Tokyo's amateur rugby scene may just be the city's best kept secret for social fun as well as competitive fitness. All it takes says TGRFC coach and YCAC vice-captain Fisher is to, "get in touch with one of the four teams and come down and give it a go."

Learn more about the Tokyo Gaijin Rugby Football Club at: http://www.tokyogaijin.com or contact Jeff Harris via: Newjoffa@aol.com. Get the scoop on YCAC Rugby Club at: http://www.geocities.com/ycac_rugby. The curious and rugby strategists alike can e-mail Joe fisher at: joefisherabroad@hotmail.com. All France awaits you at: http://www.allfrance-rugby.com or e-mail them at: join.afrc@gmail.com. To become a Tokyo Crusader check out: http://www.tokyocrusaders.com or e-mail: join@tokyocrusaders.com.

In Aichi or Kyoto? Look up the Nagoya Barbarians Rugby Football Club (http://www.nagoyabarbarians.com) or the Heian Crusaders Rugby Football Club (http://www.heiancrusaders.com).



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