Hirabayashi flies the Japanese flag at JWC

(IRB.COM) Thursday 18 June 2009
By Tom Chick
From Tokyo
Hirabayashi flies the Japanese flag at JWC
Taizo Hirabayashi refereed the play-off match between Scotland and Fiji - Photo: Hiroyuki Setsuda (RJP)

While the host’s Under 20 team prepare for their 15th place play-off against Uruguay on Sunday, another man has been flying the flag in a different way for Japan at the IRB TOSHIBA Junior World Championship 2009.

Taizo Hirabayashi has been fulfilling a lifelong ambition to be involved in rugby and he is now a well respected and established referee. He first refereed a match - Uruguay v Russia - at the IRB Under 19 World Championship in 2005, and his career has escalated ever since. In this tournament on home soil he has refereed the Pool D match between Canada and Wales and Fiji's play-off match with Scotland on Wednesday. 

His growth in stature has not only occurred in the refereeing world, as he was also named in the 100 most recognised faces in Japan. This is not the first time a referee has earned recognition - James Bolabiu beat golfer Vijay Singh to be named Fiji’s Sports Personality of the Year in March - although Hirabayashi insists this is just an added extra to an already dream job.

“People say I am a celebrity. It is true I am one of the top 100 most recognised faces in Japan. I was in News Week magazine a couple of years ago. I didn’t know the fact but one of my friends brought me the magazine and showed me my face in the magazine, and said ‘Taizo look’, and people around me would say ‘100, 100, 100’, but that is not my life,” explained Hirabayashi. 

“My activity is obviously at a high level of rugby in Japan and people recognise me and young referees hopefully admire me, but my activity is a dream activity for me. When I sit in my chair in my room, watching some Sevens where I was refereeing, then I start feeling unbelievable. When I am on the field I concentrate on the game, but outside of this I realise how much of a dream it is for me.”

Getting involved again

The 34-year-old was not always a referee, however, and as with many other Japanese rugby players, had to make a decision about his career after high school. Having initially given up playing the game at University, he missed it too much and looked into ways he could be involved again, although he admitted it wasn’t easy.

“I started playing rugby when I was five years old because my father was a rugby player as well. He was my first rugby coach at school and I always wanted to play in the Five Nations because it was always on TV when I was a child and I grew up with that rather than Japanese rugby,” continued Hirabayashi.

“I left rugby when I got into University because I needed to prepare for examinations. I started saying it is not my life because I started playing rugby very young. When I looked at the future, there were three ways to continue, one as a player, one as a referee and one as an organiser and I took up refereeing.

“It was difficult because even when I came back to rugby as a referee, people around me stopped doing it because it is such a huge commitment. Like me, they always admire their parents, brothers and friends who tried to stop them, but I couldn’t stop myself.”

The fact he is now involved in his dream job is just one of the perks, and another came a couple of years after his refereeing career started, when Paddy O’Brien and Stephen Hilditch were appointed IRB Referee Manager and IRB Referee Selector respectively. 

Mutual respect

“When I started in international rugby they were not there because there were other people operating the referees. But as soon as they were involved in the IRB management group, I felt like my heroes were in front of me and teaching me how to referee and that is something amazing to me.

“I grew up with the Five Nations and the Super 10 rugby with them refereeing and I copied them a lot when I was young. They are really my heroes, my super heroes.”

The respect is mutual from O’Brien, the IRB Referee Manager, who was quick to point out that all the Japanese referees involved in the IRB TOSHIBA Junior World Championship 2009 have stepped up to the plate.

“Taizo Hirabayashi is probably well known on the world circuit for his Sevens refereeing. He has really stepped up to the plate here and he has kept the flag flying for Japan. As have the three assistant referees – they have been outstanding,” admitted O'Brien. 

“They have learnt a lot but the great thing for them is that they have been able to mix with the referees who have done European Cup and Super 14. Their touch judging or assistant refereeing itself has been of a high standard. I think the JRFU can take a lot of credit for the way they have prepared these referees going into the tournament.”

As for the Japan Under 20 team who will contest the 15th place play-off against Uruguay in Nagoya on Sunday, Hirabayashi believes there is only a small difference between them and those competing at a higher level.

“Japan were quite unlucky. They could have won the games, especially against Samoa and Scotland," admitted Hirabayashi, who will end the Championship by refereeing the 13th place play-off between Italy and Canada in Nagoya.

“But I still believe the biggest difference between them and bigger nations is luck. Minor things, just small things, are a big difference in a game. We don’t have many tournaments before Under 20 level and if we did, I am pretty sure Japan Under 20s could be one of the top teams in the world.”

** Watch New Zealand take on England in the IRB TOSHIBA Junior World Championship 2009 live and on-demand for free on Sunday 21 June. The final kicks off at the Prince Chicuhibu Memorial Stadium in Tokyo at 15:00 local time after the third place play-off between Australia and South Africa. ** 
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** You can also watch on-demand the two semi finals - New Zealand v Australia and England v South Africa ** 

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