Japanese tourists go in search of credibility

Dave Hadfield assesses the difficulties facing one of rugby league's new recruits
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The Independent Online
On Friday night, the Japanese student rugby league team delighted spectators at Warrington with their display of synchronised and ceremonial bowing.

Less than 24 hours later, they showed rather less cohesion in conceding 90 points to Scotland in their opening match in the Halifax Student Rugby League World Cup.

That is the quandary when the game goes exotic. On the one hand, the Japanese, snapping pictures of each other like any band of young tourists, are welcomed as colourful newcomers. On the field, with France to play tonight and England on Saturday, there is the danger of serious embarrassment, not to mention loss of face.

The other way of looking at it is to say that it is a miracle that they are here at all - and conceding as few as 90 points - because the code in Japan has had the bumpiest of rides. Despite the gut feeling that the Japanese, with their lack of line-out jumpers and specialist scrummagers and love of running the ball, are more naturally suited to league, it has proved difficult to convince them of that.

"We had 35 players at one session," said Max Mannix, a former Sydney first-grade player whose mission in life this is. "Then they found out it was rugby league and the following week we had two. It has to do with Japanese society, where being part of the group is very important. If you step outside, you can be ostracised."

Even when Japan managed to field a side in the Sydney Sevens, they were disqualified for not being Japanese enough, when they fielded Mannix's younger brother, Greg. "It was racism pure and simple," he said. "These blokes are discriminated against already, so we don't need that sort of thing on top of it."

It was the partial conversion of the president of the previously hostile Japanese Rugby Union that has made life slightly easier for Mannix and his group. "He saw Wigan play Bath and came back saying that, although he wouldn't actively help us, he wouldn't put barriers in our path either," said Ken Isaacs, another expatriate Australian, who played for Halifax in 1984/85 and is now Japan's team manager.

Mannix and Co needed that concession when they lost their sponsor a couple of weeks before the tour. That meant that a number of players were forced to drop out and, to make up their numbers, they held a session at Osaka University rugby union club, from which they filled up their empty places.

"We have been told that there will be no comeback against these players," Mannix said, "but we won't really know that until we get home."

It is what happens here that is of immediate concern, especially after that 90-6 hammering by the Scots. "Not only was it the first time many of them had played 13-a-side rugby league, it was the first time that they had played on grass, against foreigners or in front of a crowd," Isaacs said. "The result doesn't show lack of commitment, but just lack of knowledge and technique."

It was not surprising that the Japanese players should huddle around the play-the-ball in defence like a tour party around their guide's umbrella. "But I expect a hundred per cent improvement in our other two games," said Isaacs, who pays tribute to the Western Samoan team who have unofficially adopted them.

"The Samoans have been great. They have taken our blokes under their wing and given them a training session to help them work out what they need to do." Everyone, in fact, wants the Japanese to come through unscathed and with some pride intact. "Look at them," said one Scot as the clans from Tokyo and Osaka got to grips with a Highland Fling at the welcome barbecue for the competing teams last week. "They can always do a copy that's better than the original."

Isaacs hopes the talent for fast learning applies to picking up the rhythms of rugby league as well.

TODAY'S FIXTURES: HALIFAX STUDENT WORLD CUP Pool C: England v Scotland (7.0) (at Gateshead); France v Japan (7.0) (at Hull).