This club owes a great many things to Takeshi Takeda, but infallible administration is not one of them. Due to a clerical error in which, as so often happens, the word Saturday was mistaken for Sunday, the Gaijin lost a third of their most experienced operators before the tour even began. And that was back in the days, meaning the day before we left, when we thought we were only registered for the 10?s.
For which we now had ten players, no more, no less, who turned up at Shinjuku station at 6.30 a.m. sharp. Some of them even took the correct exit. Most importantly, a Tokyo Gaijin team was assembled: we were going, we were playing.
Sugadaira is a secret rugby haven nestled in the mountains. Instead of parks and gardens, there are rugby pitches, 67 of them. And all of them flat and green with the kind of short mown grass usually reserved for television. There?s only one game in town, and instead of bakeries there are Canterbury and Mizuno outlets; instead of supermarkets, discount stores for Cotton Traders and Carrisbrook. It?s an unexpected rugby fantasy, a pre-season hideout for colleges and Top League teams. This is urban design with the only priority rugby and long views of green misted hills.
At the hotel, Murray Clarke tried out the public bath, Takeshi went to a meeting. This was to be the pattern for the next thirty-six hours. Almost. In fact, it turned out to be a weekend of thirds. One third rugby, a third beer and Chinese firewater, and the final third spent largely underwater.
Best Team in the Tournament 42 Tokyo Gaijin 7
Those humorous officials from the Nagano RFU had drawn the Gaijin to play three games in a row without a rest. And the first of those games was against last years? champions, a slick and enterprising outfit who were soon running the Gaijin ragged. It was also discovered, at the first knock-on, that the Japanese version of 10?s requires only three forwards. The Gaijin were therefore the only team in the tournament to arrive with five forwards, and big units at that.
The Gaijin played a slow first half, seeming to rely on Joe and Joffa and the mighty Todd Collins. Unfortunately, these three were fuming back in Tokyo, and it was only in the second half that the unshakeable Mark Pearson rallied the pack by providing the nuclear core in a series of impressive rolling mauls. After a neat series of interpasses involving the dynamic So Nagashima, the still repentant Takeshi flighted the ball into a gap for the rampaging Niall Conlon to gallop over.
Greens 12 Tokyo Gaijin 12
The Gaijin were straight back for the next game on Sugadaira?s lush and inviting grass. The opposition, expecting an easy run, were soon 12 points down, and it was Mauro Sauco doing the damage. The big Argentinean, deceptively speedy for such a big cut of steak, smashed the ball at speed up the middle, not once but twice, sucking in so many defenders that Beard had an easy waltz down the blind side for the try. The second score came as a reward for Jyoh Iwasaki?s persistent harrying, forcing his addled opponent into an error and then kicking through to fall gratefully on the ball as it rolled beneath the posts.
The Gaijin were equally resolute in defence. A groin strain had cut down Murray?s mobility, but he made up for this by standing big in the tackle. Not just big; huge. Chris Lucas never flinched, even after a bang on the head made him unclear as to which way we were actually playing. And Steve Bull constantly chased back under pressure, foiling one particularly dangerous chip by falling on the ball and refusing to budge. For anyone or anything. Ever again.
Then, just as the Gaijin were poised to surge ahead for the win, dark clouds rolled in from the mountains, and all players and spectators were asked, very politely but by loudspeaker, to evacuate the area. As the thunder and lightning began, the wise Nagano mountain men claimed the storm was here to stay, and so abandoned the tournament.
Which is how, about half an hour later, the Gaijin came to be lounging in an outdoor onsen in blazing sunshine. Grand it was, too. Except Takeshi, who was at yet another meeting trying to get the team into the next day's 15's tournament. Which came as a surprise to the organisers, because we were already down on the list. An emergency call went out on the bat-phone to skipper Joe Fisher, who was on the next train out from Tokyo.
The Gaijin had a bath, went to a free beer party with no beer, found four new players, and then embarked on the bit with the beer and the Chinese firewater. So best cut forward a few hours to tatami rooms, snoring, dawn. Takeshi is back at another meeting, where he gets the Gaijin a match start-time of 10 am. The man's a genius.
Gunma Blue Dogs 19 Tokyo Gaijin 24
The Blue Dogs came out hard and fast. And we let them, as we usually do. The perfect grass of yet another perfect pitch was slick with mountain rain, but with the help of some new recruits on the wings the Gaijin decided to spread the ball wider. Once the team stopped making basic mistakes, it even seemed to work. Pearson and Fisher rolled the pack forward in the tight phases, and with Nagashima and Clarke providing the links, Conlon in particular relished hitting the line from deep.
Despite going two scores down, the faith remained strong, and just before the break, Beard capitalised on some good retention work by the forwards to dodge over from close range. Again, it was in the second half that the Gaijin came good, the tireless Fisher in close support to finish off a great move started by Takeshi, his troubles all behind him as he sliced through the Blue Dogs back-line to set up the score.
A few minutes later he did it again, and after dubious work from centres Bull and Conlon, this set up the position for the penalty move which launched Mauro through a terrified opposition for his first ever try. Mauro is increasingly a force in the Gaijin pack, and this score will not be his last.
The Dogs kept on biting and snarling, and even pulled back a try before Steve Bull put the game beyond doubt, racing in from 20 yards to finish off yet another excellent period of Gaijin teamwork.
This was a good win to decorate a memorable weekend, and also to end the first phase of the season. Or not quite end. There was still another bath to be had, and another outdoors onsen on the way back to Tokyo. We may not be the best team in Japan, but after Sugadaira we?re certainly the cleanest.
Men of the match 10s Mark Pearson, Mauro Sauco
Men of the match 15s Steve Bull, Takeshi Takeda
Colours: Explain that again, will you Niall? Oh yes (oh no) I remember now:
Scarf: Shino Iwasaki
Tie: Mizue Sauco
Small but significant extra yellow bit on the socks: Aaron Dauber
And for those of you unable to leave Tokyo, for reasons forgotten and forgiven, a Joe Fisher style quotation, via William Shakespeare:
And gentlemen in Tokyo now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap while any speaks
That fought with us upon the lush green grass of Sugadaira.