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Where EAST meets the Northwest

RUGBY IN THE RAIN. A member of Japan’s rugby team, Jiwon Koo, carries his teammate, James Moore, through a flooded walkway at a Tokyo stadium during team practice. Rugby stars in Japan for the World Cup mostly heeded the same safety warnings as Japanese residents as the country braced to be hit by a typhoon. (Yuki Sato/Kyodo News via AP)

From The Asian Reporter, V29, #20 (October 21, 2019), page 10.

As Japan braced for typhoon, rugby squad trained in the rain

By John Pye

AP Sports Writer

TOKYO — Emergency crews were on high alert. Flights and trains were cancelled. Rugby stars in Japan for the World Cup mostly heeded the same safety warnings as everyone else as the country braced to be hit by a typhoon tipped to be its worst in six decades.

Tokyo Disneyland was shut. Shops were closed, shelves empty in some places as people stockpiled provisions. Images of massive waves pounding into Japan’s main island were all over the media. Rugby World Cup games were cancelled.

And what was Michael Leitch and his Japan squad doing amid all this? Slogging through shin-deep water to get onto a sodden rugby field in downtown Tokyo to prepare for a game against Scotland that was possibly postponed. It was hours before Typhoon Hagibis made landfall, and an earthquake in the area, but it was evidence of how this squad does things its own way.

"Discipline is crucial when the game gets tight," Leitch was quoted as saying by the national news agency.

They’ve certainly been disciplined. Japan won three games at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, including the epic upset of two-time champion South Africa, but still missed out on the quarterfinals. Despite the against-the-odds nature of that campaign, missing out on the knockout stage deeply hurt the players. Ultimately, it was a loss to Scotland that cost them.

The squad that some critics regarded as an assembly of rugby expats has certainly won the support of the host nation, probably because perseverance is a primary trait.

Joseph is a former New Zealand forward who played against Japan at the 1995 World Cup, and then switched to play for Japan in ’99. And now he’s coach.

Leitch was born in New Zealand, has Fijian heritage, but moved to Japan at age 15 and is playing in his third World Cup, his second as captain. He’s teak tough, and a leader who exemplifies the team-first attitude. Players like halves partners Yutaka Nagare and Yu Tamura and winger Kenki Fukuoka have highlighted the increasing depth of the homegrown talent pool.

Prop Keita Inagaki was on the Japan squad that lost to Scotland four years ago in England, and he carries that as motivation.

"I have never forgotten that feeling of defeat," Keita was quoted as saying by Kyodo. "We played two tests against them a year later and I still remember the pain from those, too."

Japan advanced to the quarterfinal round, but was defeated by South Africa over the weekend. In the semifinals, held October 26 and 27, England meets New Zealand and Wales plays South Africa. The final takes place November 2.

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