Saturday the 11th of July was the day we had all been waiting for, and a meeting time of 6:45am had been laid down clearly in correspondence leading up to the day. Due once again to the sensational organisational skills of Alaister Nimmo, a large contingent of around 45 players, supporters, parents, and offspring had been put together to make the annual pilgrimage to Rugby Mecca Sugadaira. The group - bristling with anticipation and anxious to get on the road - was forced to wait even longer thanks to newly crowned Harlequin model Andy "Mr. Cool" Ballard. In scenes reminiscent of a Sugadaira departure some years previous, when former Gaijin player and fellow model Romeo Devlin strolled up to the bus 40 minutes late with Starbuck's coffee in hand, Mr. Cool and Czech mate Lucie showed similar distain for the arrangements in turning up considerably later than our planned departure time. We couldn't stay angry at them for long though, and once on the road our high spirits returned. Making good time in the luxury coach that Nimmo had hired for the trip, conversations on the journey up ranged from the validity of Al Gore's global warming crusade to the benefits of hedging currency when doing business with overseas companies. We were also treated to Blake Walker's full repertoire of Michael Jackson jokes.
The trip flew by, and after a quick stop in the Sugadaira township to pick up some supplies, we pulled into Hotel Davos around 11:30. Kitted up and back on the bus by 12 noon, we made our way to the location of Saturday's 10's tournament. As with last year, it seemed that the so-called "organisers" of the 10's would have difficulty arranging a Nomikai at the Suntory factory. With five teams present, some kind of round-robin tournament would surely have been the best approach, but it was a knock-out tournament that eventuated.
With a squad of 20 players on deck, the Gaijin were confident that their inherent fitness deficiencies would not play a part (as long as tactical substitutions could be managed properly!). Unfortunately, tournament organisers had created a rule whereby substitutions could only be made at half-time, so our plans were somewhat negated. Playing our first game against a yellow team that had already played one game, we did fancy our chances as the fresher team. In what was to become a theme at kick-off time during the tour, Nimmo made a complete meal of it whenhe spilt the ball forward within our own 22 metre line (Nimmo will no doubt argue that there was interference from a fellow Gaijin player, but nobody should believe this). Defending gallantly close to our line for the initial stages of the game, we managed to repel all the attacks that came our way and eventually broke out up field. This was to be our downfall though, and the additional space that exists in 10's was utilised by the yellow team's speedy winger who broke up field from around the halfway line. Yours truly lumbered across and managed to get in the way of the winger but not before he had passed inside to one of his team mates who went over unobstructed to score the opening try. That was how the first-half ended.
In an effort to confuse the opposition, we conducted a complete change of personnel going into the second half. This didn't seem to work however (apparently we all look the same), and the yellow team went further ahead after scoring another try early into the second half. Irishman Toby Gallagher, slotting in at stand-off (a position he is relatively unaccustomed to), marshaled the troups with some skillful ball-play which included a Jeff Wilson-esque chip kick and regather. The Gaijin clawed their way back into the game with Andy Ballard showing good strength to drive his way over the line with two would-be tacklers hanging off him (if only he'd shown the same determination to get to the departure point on time!) and with minutes remaining, it was all on. Unfortunately there was to be no further scoring and the game resulted in a hard-fought 2 tries to 1 loss. A disappointing start but nothing to be ashamed of.
After a brief water break, we were back at it, up against a team dressed in black. They seemed to be a lot bigger than our previous opponents and we knew a tough battle was in store. In what was to prove a master-stroke, veteran hooker Toru Kanamori, started the game at halfback with youngster Tommy Nasuno (half Kanamori's age) starting at hooker. To coin a cheesy cliché, like a fine wine Kanamori seems to get better with age and he was all over the park, scoring a try in both halves and providing great service to the backs. It was one try a-piece at halftime but with reinforcements gagging at the bit to get on the field for the Gaijin, we were confident that we could run away with this one and that was how it turned out. 3 tries, 1 each from yours truly, Kiwi newcomer Aaron (well assisted by Erin Hughes who had a solid day all round in his comeback tournament), and Toru's second of the game, all converted, and unanswered by the opposition, took us to a comfortable 26-5 victory.
So that was how the 10's tourney ended. 1 win and 1 loss with everyone getting good game time. As mentioned earlier, stand-out performance of the day came from Toru Kanamori who was later rewarded for his efforts by having to skull a beer. The festivities for the day were only just beginning though and it was back to Davos to get cleaned up before hitting the turps. After a few warm-up beverages in the hotel lounge, we hopped back on the bus to join Al Nimmo at the official Sugadaira Welcome Reception. Upon entering the hall, we all received tickets for a draw for prizes ranging from a trip for two to New Zealand, to a case of beer, to lettuce. We commandeered a table near the front of the room and went to work on the free beer that was on offer. It just so happened that our opposition for the following day (The Kawagoe Fighters) was occupying the table next to us so we made their acquaintance. They looked like your typical Japanese team - that is until their captain was called over from another table - this man mountain was the biggest Japanese rugby player any of us had ever seen! We quickly decided against initiating any sort of intimidatory behaviour and proceeded to be as civil as we could, even posing for photos with "The Fighters".
Soon after, the prize draw began and we were lucky enough to have some winners of minor prizes within our ranks. These lucky individuals were Blake Walker, Gaijin newcomer Cam Cleland's mother-in-law, and Takeshi Ochiai. The former two went up and received their prize vouchers without incident but the third, young Ochiai, was chosen by the announcer to say a few words upon receiving his voucher. In front of the approximately 250 people present, Ochiai took the microphone, thought for a second, then screamed "&%#$ OFF" (is this all the English the Japanese education system had taught him?). Ochiai was forced to consume a large amount of alcohol throughout the night for this indiscretion.
Back again to Hotel Davos, and we were presented with a wonderful meal in the dining room. Accompanying the meal were speeches and recognition of those players who had stood out during the day (for good or bad reasons). Senor Sauco Senior gave a moving speech in Spanish (translated into English by his son), making mention of how the Gaijin team had grown as a unit since his last visit 3 years earlier.
The beer was flowing and bottles just kept appearing from nowhere. At the conclusion of the meal we headed outside for a pyrotechnics exhibition lead by Blake Walker. All and sundry were enjoying the display before a distressed Hotel Davos employee came out crying to say we were actually on the hotel next door's field and she would get into big trouble if we left any marks on the beautifully manicured lawn. We promptly retreated to Davos ground and continued the fireworks without further incident.
Then it was off to an "Enkai" room for some more drinking and festivities including a stirring rendition of the new Walker penned Gaijin National Anthem (sung to the tune of Advance Australia Fair). Here are the lyrics:
THE NEW GAIJIN NATIONAL ANTHEM
Gaijin all let us rejoice
The weekend now is here
We've waited all bloody week for this
Dear God we've earned a beer.
Our knees abound with scrapes and cuts
Our brows are stained with sweat
In desperate rage, we'll fly the cage
Advance to Sugadaira drinks!!
With joyful strains, destroy our brains
Advance to Sugadaira drinks.
Beers continued to flow and Walker continued to charge, belying his reputation as a light to middleweight drinker who tends to fall asleep after a few beers. He was on fire, and as a steady trickle of tourists headed off to their beds, Walker started putting together a squad to go Tanuki Hunting. Comprised of Nimmo, Tommy Nasuno and the leader Walker himself, this intrepid trio set off into the night in search of the elusive raccoon dog or "Tanuki" as it is known by the locals...............
Our hero Walker appeared far more subdued the next morning as he recounted the events of an ultimately unsuccessful mission. We had a game to play nevertheless, and the day had dawned cloudy and calm, perfect rugby playing conditions. 3 playing members of the touring party had declared themselves unavailable for the Sunday game due to injuries sustained the previous day but the remaining members were raring to go. After a lengthy lead-up to the game (we had to be present for the opening ceremony at 9 but our game didn't begin until 11:15) which included indulging in the quaint game of croquet, it was time to rumble. This time, it was Scotsman Gaz Dalrymple who made a complete meal of the kick-off and right from the get-go, we were on the back foot. From the ensuing scrum, the Kawagoe Fighters broke left and looked to be heading in for the score before a magnificent covering tackle from Nimmo (playing at stand-off today) snuffed out the attack.
Throughout the first half, there was little between the two teams with Chris "Feral" Fearon having a blinder in the front row to keep his "Man Mountain " opposite semi in check. Captain Clarke was also reveling in the chance to play on a decent surface for once and was constantly in the action with the ball in hand. Thommo and Toby were accurate in the loose, snaffling lots of opposition ball, and the general mistake rate was low meaning an entertaining game for the spectators on the sideline. After a sustained period of attack, the Fighters were able to cross the Gaijin line, although how the referee managed to award a try given that the ball seemed to be two feet in the air, was unclear to all that were watching.
So, down by a try to zip at halftime, the Gaijin needed to lift their game. Into the second half and Nimmo at Stand-off was his usual busy self on the tackle and also when distributing the ball to his outsides. The Gaijin backs launched some strong raids into the Fighters' half but these proved fruitless initially. Indeed it was the Fighters who opened the scoring in the 2nd half with another try to go 2 up. The Gaijin now had nothing to lose and it was clear that the Fighters were getting weary. The Gaijin seemed to get stronger as the game progressed and one Fighters loose forward felt the need to deliver multiple blows with his knee to the head of courageous second rower Erin Hughes. Hughes blew up and started advancing towards the loosie, seemingly with the intention of delivering some justice of his own. Fortunately Hughes was able to show restraint uncharacteristic of a former marine hardman and the referee who had witnessed the incident, stepped in to award their player a yellow card. So, with about 15 minutes remaining, the Fighters were down to 14 men and struggling. The Gaijin had to make the most of their numbers advantage and this they did. Jo Iwasaki, who had been extremely solid all tournament, back playing rugby after breaking a collar bone several months earlier, showed some deft footwork and also strength to jink his way through the defensive line from about 15 metres out to score a try. As with the first game the previous day, the Gaijin had left their run just a little late and this was the way the game was to end, a nailbiting 2 tries to 1 loss. There were a lot of positives to be had from the game however so no one was overly disappointed.
Back to the hotel for lunch and another awards session and it was "Fearless Feral Feron" who quite rightly won the man of the match award. Toru Kanamoru deservedly won player of the tournament and Andy Cool was forced to drink a cold bottle of water for going to bed at 9pm the previous night and leaving his Czech Missus Lucie to take both their punishments for lateness on the first day (which she did admirably and without complaint by the way).
So that was nearly it for another year with only the bus trip home remaining. After stopping in to scare the locals at a nearby Onzen, we stocked up on beer and beverages and hit the motorway. Not long later, we ourselves were hit by a screeching rendition of Britney Spears' "Hit Me Baby One More Time" from Andy "not so cool now" Ballard on the coach's Karaoke system. It took us some time to recover from this terrifying experience and poor little Suzu Iwasaki was probably the worst affected. It would be fair to say she had never experienced such an abhorrent karaoke performance in her short life, and she was so distressed that it was decided we should bring an end to the Karaoke and play some drinking games instead. These continued for the remainder of the trip at the back of the bus while those who had drunk too much the previous night (BW), took it easy towards the front of the bus.
And so ended another fantastic trip to Sugadaira. This is always a great tour on and off the field and one that everyone should experience. Tune in next year for another exciting episode of "Gaijin Go to Sugadaira"!