Thanks to the superb organisational skills of Gaijin stalwart Alaistair Nimmo, the Gaijin were just able to scrape together the required numbers for another trip to Japan's rugby Mecca "Sugadaira".
Having heard accounts from previous Sugadaira trips such as the time when a former captain interfered with tanuki carrion and then the following morning at the opening ceremony (still completely intoxicated), recounted in precise detail his entire career and how much he loves rugby, in front of all teams present, I knew I had to make the pilgrimage and experience Sugadaira for myself.
Leaving the metropolis on Friday afternoon with Gaijin Motivational Specialist Erin Hughes and son Eric, we were hit by the most sudden, fierce hail and thunder storm this Gaijin has ever experienced – hardly an auspicious sign with the weekend's proceedings just beginning. Erin slowed his SUV to about 5kms per hour on the motorway, expressing caution uncharacteristic of a former Marine hard-man, and we slowly forged on. Reaching Sugadaira at nightfall, we realised that Mrs Erin (Satomi) Hughes hadn't bothered entering the hotel address into the car- navi (she'd simply entered Sugadaira, Nagano). Whether she had overestimated her husband's navigational skills, or used this to get back at her husband for taking the family car for the weekend remains a mystery but we were completely lost. Luckily we had young Eric to bail us out of this sticky situation.
On his suggestion we entered the hotel phone number into the navi and within a matter of minutes, we found ourselves within the confines of our lodgings. After several nightcaps in the hotel lobby, we retired to our room for a few hours’ kip. I was just dozing off when another thunderstorm (or so I thought) hit. It turns out that Erin and son both have something called Sleep Apnea. I didn't get much sleep that night.
The next day dawned beautifully fine and a convoy of reinforcements arrived around midday. Not long after, we proceeded to the grounds for the day's 10s tournament. 4 teams were present for the competition, so a round-robin style tournament (where each team played the other once) seemed ideal. However, and as is often the case with rugby in Japan, nonsense prevailed over common sense and the tournament took the form of a knockout competition.
The first two teams took the field giving us the luxury of assessing the conditions whilst conducting our warm-up exercises. There was a large press contingent present, all with cameras in tow, and their retractable lenses seemed to be focussed primarily on us (or perhaps Andy's attractive blond spouse and Chris' not so attractive gingernut companion?).
It was finally our turn, and we started the game with a hiss and a roar, leading by three tries to none. All of a sudden the gaijin players seemed to be struck down with a bout of narcolepsy and the game took a massive turn. Our opponents scored 4 unanswered tries and ran out victors 20-19. It was a disappointing start to the trip but there were a few standout performances, in particular that of Willie who joined us for the weekend from a rival club which shall remain unnamed.
Fortunately we fared better in our second game, running out comfortable victors over All Jin Jyan, a foe we had come to know well during the course of the season. The highlight (or lowlight rather) of this game was the injury sustained to nuggety halfback Al Nimmo. Renowned for his tough/no-holds-barred tackling, Al unfortunately met his match when he tried to headbutt the flying knee of an All Jin Jyanner. Far from his chirpy self at the conclusion of the game, no one doubted the gravity of Nimmo's injury which was revealed after a trip to the local A&E as a fracture of the cheekbone. Nimmo was out of the tour in a playing sense but, drugged up to the eyeballs (or cheekbones at least) on pain-killers, he produced a magnificent, semi-naked, cheerleading/administrative performance at the game the next day, going to prove that you just can't hold a good man down!
We finished the Saturday's rugby with one win and one loss, giving us a bronze medal in Olympic terms. Despite average performances on the field, we had all relished the opportunity to play on the hallowed turf of Sugadaira and we'd worked up a good thirst that needed to be satiated. We made our way to a local house bar to watch the All Blacks pummel the Boks, and as the beers started to flow, talk of the former captain's roadkill shenanigans started to circulate. The arrival of Joffa Harris, fresh off the shinkansen, helped to buoy us further and it was Joffa who walked away with the cash from the game's score sweepstake (tinny bugger!).
Perhaps it was the freshness of the Nagano air, or the disappointment of the ABs first loss to South Africa on NZ soil for around a million years, but the festivities seemed to taper off quite abruptly and the narcolepsy that struck down the gaijin team earlier in the day returned. Pommie fitness expert Andy Ballard was the first to drop and it didn't take Lonnie Childress aka George Gregan long to pounce. Lonnie procured a black felt pen from the owners of the house and went to work on poor Andy's face. Some might say "what goes around comes around" but Andy ended up looking like a tattooed Maori Warrior albeit a tall, skinny, strawberry blond version of one (at least no block and tackle was involved eh Andy?). We journeyed back to our lodgings and the night ended without further incident with all of us (excepting Joffa) choosing beds over beers.
Sunday dawned beautifully fine again and we made our way to the opening ceremony with about 50 other teams. Thoughts of the former captain’s alcohol fuelled lecture came flooding back but fortunately it was left to a Japanese, self proclaimed “Rugger Baka” to eloquently (and briefly) espouse the virtues of our favourite game and why we love it so much.
At the conclusion of the formalities, we had a few hours to kill before our game, so it was off to the pillage the many rugby goods stores Sugadaira is home to. More than one tour member walked away with a flash new pair of white boots!
Then it was back to what both veteran (in terms of the amount of rugby he’s played!) Joe Fisher and myself described as the best rugby ground we’ve ever played on. The quality of this field, and the picturesque surroundings were just breath-taking.
We were drawn to play against a youthful local side. Without Nimmo, and with fitness clouds hanging ominously over numerous gaijin members despite lovely blue sky, it was always going to be an up hill battle.
We toiled manfully throughout the game with standout performances from young Takeshi, Toru’s mate Kuma, Kevin the mad Frenchman, first-time front-rowers Erin & Will who interchanged at prop, along with veteran front-rowers Toru and Joe. Wings Lawerence and Lonnie both played full games and also performed admirably, each contributing with some good touches. With the score 0-0 with around 5 minutes to play, the game was in the balance but unfortunately it was the locals who took the “ball by the horns” and ran away with the game scoring two late tries to clinch victory 12-0.
Despite the loss, I’m sure we all relished the opportunity to play on such a great surface, and benefited from the experience. The day ended with the two teams getting together under the posts for a nice “Shutter Chance” and Sugadaira was over for another year.
SUDAGAIRA 2008 TEAM
Andy Ballard (England)
Matt Downer (New Zealand – Captain)
Chris Fearon (New Zealand)
Joe Fisher (New Zealand)
Wuzzar (New Zealand)
Joffa Harris (Australia)
Erin Hughes (USA)
Kevin Rebay (France)
Paulo de Berriozabal (Basque)
Toru Kanamori (Japan)
Lonie Childress (USA)
Al Nimmo (Japan / England)
Will Thompson (Australia)
Yoichi Ohira (Japan)
Lawrence Hi (Australia)
Willie (From YCAC)