For the Japanese size does count
The Japanese will always be at a disadvantage when they clash with the giant forwards of the other nations in the World Cup
RUGBY: Barney Spender
THERE is the old joke: “For this week’s winner the big prize is a one week holiday in Bloemfontein, and for our loser it’s a two week holiday in Bloemfontein.”
And then there’s an equally ancient line, which has been applied to a number of cities around the world, as well as the whole of New Zealand: “Yes, yes I went to Bloemfontein once,” the joke runs, “but it was closed.”
Hm, poor old Bloem seems to cop most of the “boring town” flack in South Africa. But for the duration of the World Cup it has come to life as temporary host to Wales, Ireland and New Zealand and more permanently to the Japanese who play each of their matches at the spankng new Springbok Park, starting with the Welsh on Saturday.
Culture shocks come in many shapes and sizes but they don’t come much deeper than a small, hardy band of pocket-sized Japanese who can barely speak English, spending three weeks in the heart of Afrikanerdom.
And yet the visitors have settled in well and have discovered, if they didn’t know it already, that rugby has its own universal brand of language.
Japan are quoted at about 1 500-1 to win the World Cup.
Chances are that they won’t win a match, but they are still approaching the tournament in a positive frame of mind.
There is much at stake, after all, not least the fact that they hope to co-host the 2003 tournament with Australia and New Zealand.
A good showing this time around, and possibly the scalp of the Welsh or the Irish, and their hand at the international bargaining table becomes an awful lot stronger.
One man who is looking on the bright side is flyhalf Seigi Hirao. He admits that the chances of beating New Zealand are slimmer than Twiggy at the dieting convention, but genuinely believes that they might get past the other two.
“It’s going to be difficult because of the size disadvantage. It will be difficult to win ball from the line-out so I think we’ll be using a lot of short line-outs and try to get the ball away quickly. And I hope that on our own ball we’ll get some good possession from the scrums.”
Yes, I am afraid that when it comes to international rugby these days size does matter.
And the Japanese, as fit as any team and as fast and nippy as a shoal of electric eels, simply don’t have it. True, they have beefed up the pack by recruiting Fijian Bruce Ferguson and the unrelated Latu boys from Tonga, but it is unlikely to be enough.
And it’s a problem they take very seriously, although when someone asks why they couldn’t just pull in a couple of sumo wrestlers and stick them in the front row, they erupt into peels of eye-watering laughter as if they have just heard a joke to rival the best that Blomfontein can offer.
Maybe they are right, that the prospect of seeing men who make Kobus Wiese look like a seven stone weakling is too hilarious to consider. But the fact that sumo wrestlers get paid enormous sums of money, at least enough to keep them in breakfasts for a year, while rugby in Japan pays nothing, may also influence their decision.
Hirao is about as far removed from the world of sumo as you can imagine. A “quick and clever” playmaker—in line with coach Osamu Koyabu’s famous tactical policy—he now has 33 caps and is one of the small band of men to figure in all three World Cups.
Welsh coach Alex Evans, who spent several seasons with Hirao at club level in Japan, sees him as the great danger to Wales. “Seigi is a great player and Japan are very lucky that he has come back from retirement to play,” he says. “He’ll help with their composure and although he isn’t captain he’ll have a tremendous influence on their game.”
Hirao did captain Japan in the last tournament, leading them to their only win in the finals, a 52-8 drubbing of Zimbabwe, before retiring at the tender age of 28.
“I was getting old,” he smiles, “and I didn’t think it would be possible with my job and my family to keep going until this World Cup.”
Hirao, an aliminium salesman by profession, carried on playing domestic rugby, helping Kobe Steel to continue their dominance at club level, until a couple of bad results at the start of this year saw the national selectors reach for the Kobe telephone directory.
Yes, that Kobe, the one which was devastated by a massive earthquake which killed 5 000 people. There can’t be too many World Cup sides who have had to prepare themselves in the rubble of a broken down city. but at least, as Hirao points out, there were no rugby casualties—unlike the Romanians in 1991 who lost a couple of players in the uprising against Ceaucescu.
Their last outing saw Japan beat the Romanians 34-21, a win which was watched by 30 000 people and which has stoked interest in the World Cup, a fact borne out by a media presence which touches the 30 mark.
“Since the game against Romania the expectations of the public at home have gone up. I think they expect us to do well here,” says Hirao. “If we beat the All Blacks then we’ll go home as heroes,” he laughs, “but if we lose every game then I think I might have to stop in Hong Kong on the way home.”
That’s if he can find the road out of Bloemfontein.