TOKYO, 15 Oct - It was an all-time classic. A match we will be talking about for decades, a match that was as emotionally-charged as it was spellbinding in its drama and excitement. In the context of the natural disaster that had ravaged the country, the Japanese achievement both on and off the field was jaw-dropping in its commitment, resolve and inspiration.
Like so many other visitors to Japan, our ‘world feed’ broadcast team gathered together on Saturday night in a state of ignorance, anxiety and curiosity as Typhoon Hagibis tore across the country. Mercifully, central Yokohama itself was spared much of the devastation wrought in other areas, but as the torrential rain swept sideways on the gale, optimism for the staging of a rugby match was thin on the ground. Even as the storm blew itself out in the downtown area around midnight, and continued its relentless passage north-east, there were few who believed there was any hope.
Sport is a glorious inconsequence, a glorious irrelevance. Never is this more obvious than when a genuine crisis strikes. Homes were flooded and destroyed, millions were displaced and, tragically, lives have been lost. Many Japanese will be dealing with the life-changing effects of the storm long after the Rugby World Cup has finished. What felt different on Sunday was that the trauma seemed to prompt in Japan a determination and a bloody-mindedness that spoke volumes for the human spirit. They would not be denied.
Hope and promise
I was woken at 6am on Sunday to messages of hope and promise. A photograph of the pitch itself bathed in sunshine, blue skies above, and hordes of operational staff already working flat out. A text message suggesting widespread confidence and determination that a way would be found. News filtered through of operational staff sleeping on site, the clean-up starting at the break of dawn, local services wheeling into action with a defiance that was hard to comprehend. They made it happen.
A handful of hours after the biggest storm to hit Japan in more than 60 years, a rugby match. A rugby match like no other. A match framed by heartbreak, and driven by emotion. Arriving at the stadium it was clear that we were in for a special night. Red and white everywhere. Japanese supporters who had endured a night of heartache, waiting patiently for entry to the ground four hours before kick-off, even as the vast surrounding area was swamped with floodwater. A match that mattered.
In more than 20 years of broadcasting, I have been privileged enough to witness some extraordinary sporting events in some incredible places. The day France stunned the All Blacks in that Rugby World Cup semi-final in 1999. The day Rafa Nadal finally beat Roger Federer at Wimbledon over five sets in the darkness. The epic Lions series of 2009 in South Africa that must go down as one of the greatest ever. Sunday in Yokohama might just have topped the lot. The spine-tingling anthems, the moment’s silence, the blistering speed of the match. For 80 heart-stopping minutes we were treated to sport in the raw, sport that meant so much more than winning and losing. Sport that was as much about the start of a nation’s healing process, as it was an historic first Rugby World Cup quarter-final place for Asia.
Evasion, not collision
Japan’s rugby was breathtaking. After Finn Russell’s early try, Martyn Williams, Karl Te Nana and I wondered aloud in commentary if Japan’s efforts might be thwarted, and whether the emotion might overrun them. Scotland were fired up and focused after a week in which there had been far too much talk of recriminations in the event of a cancellation. The Japanese response was emphatic, and swift. Playing with their trademark accuracy and speed, they found space where there was none. They comprehensively rubbished the popular notion that you have to go through 25 phases to make any headway in modern rugby. Not for a moment am I suggesting that it wasn’t a physical encounter, but for Japan this was all about evasion, not collision. Rugby to lift the soul.
Rarely have I heard a noise like the thunderous roar that greeted the tries. The stunning offload from Fukuoka that sent Matsushima tearing in for his fifth try of the tournament. The slick handling and interplay that found Inagake tumbling over the line. The delicate Lafaele grubber that sat up for Fukuoka’s casual one-handed gather. The loudest outburst of the night might have been saved for the turbo-charged winger’s second - stripping the ball in contact and disappearing into the night, sending Japan into an unassailable 21-point lead.
Thrillingly, Scotland threw everything they had, by way of reply. Nel and Fagerson gave them a sniff but there was always a feeling inside the ground that the Scots were facing an irresistible force.
As the final whistle blew, all round us high in the stands, the tears flowed. Japanese supporters leaped into each other's arms and the stadium erupted into a joyous cacophony of red and white. The glorious irrelevance of sport, made relevant for one special, historic night.