A smoke machine, a broken hand, and Tokyo. Last year Mark took a hiatus from Balance to play rugby abroad. As much as we all missed him, we have to collectively congratulate him. Everyone knows Mark lights up when he talks about rugby, a sport he thinks deserves a capital letter. As a warning this entry is long, but it’s worth it to reach the end. Enjoy.
After a great domestic season with the U.S. men’s rugby team, it was time to take the show on the road. Touring with any sporting team is immensely challenging, but also a great deal of fun. My previous tours have brought me to Africa, New Zealand, Fiji, China, North America, South America, and throughout Europe. With Japan left out, it seemed only fitting that I finish my professional career there.
The tour started with a two-week training camp in Denver, Colo., where high altitude and the “double day” sessions left me feeling exhausted. Despite the conditions and being the oldest team member, I was still giving some of the young guys a run for their money at practice. (Videos coming.)
After camp we flew to Salt Lake City to play a test match against Uruguay. Uruguay, slightly ahead of us in world rankings, is renowned for their tough, forward play. They had recently completed a European tour so they were match ready. Our early success caused us to fall asleep and Uruguay clawed their way back. At half time the scores were deadlocked. After a huge tongue lashing by our coach we came out firing. With three quick tries, one of which I figured prominently in, we put the game to bed. Celebrating the victory, though invigorating, was short-lived.
That night, in an attempt to curb the effects of jetlag, team management kept us up until 3 a.m. before our 6 a.m. flight to Japan. On arrival, we met our tour guide Tashhi and made quite a scene towering over the Japanese airport patrons.
In preparation for our first game against Japan, we were invited to train at Toyota. The Japanese club competition is very unusual, as it revolves around all the major corporations in the country. One weekend you will have games such Sanyo verse Toyota, Toshiba verse Mitsubishi! The corporate culture is EVERYTHING in Japan! Pride is everything, and many of these companies pay huge amounts of money for rugby players to join there teams in order to be successful. I know some players are making over $500 000 a year playing rugby in Japan. Not bad!!!!
We took the bus to Toyota’s headquarters, driving through the streets of Nagoya (about three hours by fast train from Tokyo. With many of the same companies that dominate the U.S. market advertising, it really did remind us of home. The only difference was that everything was in Japanese!
On arrival at Toyota for a semi-opposed run, we entered what was basically a city of its own. Apart from the manufacturing plant, the complex featured amazing facilities for employees including indoor pools, tennis courts, soccer and baseball stadiums and the rugby stadium, which rivaled an NFL team stadium. Unlike the Japanese people that greeted us at the airport, these guys were big and athletic! They hit hard, and they took the game very seriously.
The first game was in Nagoya three days later. Many of the guys were still battling fatigue from the long flight and the recent game, but soon we received unexpected encouragement. In front of a great crowd of 15,000, we went straight into a line out drill, one where we hoist our tall guys way up in the air. This was done rather close to the sidelines. We expected abuse from the team’s supporters. (The worst abuse ever was from South Africa!) We were met with oohs and ahhhhs and soft applause every time we hoisted our players high up in the air (as if magical to the Japanese people!)!
Unfortunately we did not play well, myself included. Needless to say, we all went out that night for a few beers with a great group of guys including members of the Japanese team, which helped ease the pain. On the way to Tokyo we passed Mount Fuji. Maybe next time I will get to climb it. Due to poor performance in the first match against Japan, our tours were canceled and we had one of the toughest weeks of training.
For the final game in Tokyo, I was ready and was enjoying another sizable crowd of 20,000 during the warm-up. Just before kick-off we were lead to the back of the stadium. Rather than entering the arena from the side entrance, we were lead out high in the bleachers to a platform on the far right of the stadium. Then they turned all the lights out in the stadium and started up the smoke machines. It was like a scene from Rocky IV. In all my years, I have never experienced anything like it. I was not sure if I was going to break out laughing or start jumping up in the air like Apollo Creed. After a minute or two, they lead us down to the field. I am not an American, but I can’t help but feel great pride when singing the national anthem before playing.
The game started with a whirl! The hits were hard. And we looked great. After two minutes we found ourselves crossing over the Japanese try-line. I was extremely excited as I threw the last pass and I felt that I had shaken the nerves and bad memories of the last game. However, when walking back to the half way line for the kick-off, I noticed something wrong with my hand. I just could not close it right. It was evident to me straight away that it was broken. I could not believe it. So I did what anyone would do in what was quite possibly his last game of rugby-I played on. In the end it was not so much the pain that made me come off at half time, but more the fact that I could not grip the ball correctly. Unfortunately for the team, we ended up losing the game again. We played well, but we just made a few stupid mistakes. At this level, you just can’t afford it.
There’s no fairy tale ending, but it was still a great tour. We flew back the next day, and I was very glad to get home. My hand had swollen up considerably, and I was ready for my own bed, a cheeseburger and 2200 California.