Chris Wyatt, Kumagaya, September 24th, 2019
In my nearly weeklong stay at Rugby world Cup 2019 here in Japan, with three previous games at two venues, I found something lacking. This is the world cup, but aside from the Fan Zone in Yokohama, I had not yet seen or really or felt any buzz, special atmosphere or “zing” to make this feel like more than just series of test matches. Well, that was the case until today when I ventured up to Kumagaya to watch match number nine with Russia taking on Samoa. The Russians put up a brave effort, with a slim 6-5 lead at the end of the first half. But there were already signs that the tide would turn for Manu Samoa. It was just a question of when.
Late in the first half, the Samoans earned a yellow card for a high tackle and less than two minutes later a second one for a dangerous tackle where the Samoan got the worse end of the deal with an injury. For eight minutes Samoa played with just 13 on the pitch. Amazingly, they started playing much better as a team, nearly scored a try and earned a penalty but missed the kick. Russia’s inability to capitalize with a two-man advantage proved problematic. The second half began well, with both sides moving the ball up and down the pitch and points started coming rapidly. The game remained close after a Russian conversion made the score 10-9. But then the wheels came off. Fatigue added to the Russian woes as Samoa finally hit its stride and ran up the score to win 34-9.
While the rugby, especially the close first half of the game, was worth the trip, the real story here is the city of Kumagaya. Initially neglected and not awarded any games by world cup organizers, residents collected over 100,000 signatures on a petition for reconsideration. Japan Rugby World Cup organizers relented and granted the town three pool stage games. As it turns out, this was a very good idea. From the moment one arrives at Kumagaya train station, you feel welcome and that you are a participant in a major event. There are hordes of volunteers to greet rugby supporters. They had signs and pointed everyone in the correct direction to walk through town, past the Fan Zone and on to the well-organized bus queue to travel to the stadium. Kumagayans were incredibility friendly and most helpful. Their enthusiasm really generated a positive buzz.
The well-situated Fan Zone (on the walk to the busses) included a Kumagaya Rugby Museum. I have no idea what the events taking place on the stage were, but the Japanese speakers were quite enthusiastic and held the audience’s attention. With plenty of food stands, small events and things to do, this is an excellent Fan Zone. But the friendly and engaging nature of the volunteers and the sheer number of them made it an even better experience. Clearly whoever organized the Kumagaya volunteers did a fine job preparing them and the city for the games. There were traditional Japanese musicians all along the route from the train station to the bus queues too. The stadium was also full of complete sections of local school children. This added a nice touch in a family-friendly environment. The announced crowd of 22,564 seemed to be much larger as they wildly cheered on both sides. The city added 6,000 temporary seats and installed many outside toilets with queue lines roped off to smooth traffic flow. When fans departed, they discovered well organized and orderly bus queues, greatly reducing wait times. This was essential for those who needed to get back to Tokyo.
If you have a ticket to the remaining games in Kumagaya, you are in for a treat and will not be disappointed with the rugby experience there. Kudos to the Kumagaya organizers and all their volunteers. In my view, Kumagaya has earned the designation: “Rugby Town Japan!”
Photos By Chris Wyatt
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Chris Wyatt is a guest journalist for DJCoil Rugby who is attending the 2019 Rugby World Cup. His periodic articles will provide another perspective for matches attended.