First Rugby World Cup

June 19, 2017
Japan shocks South Africa

Jones, who likes to stir a pot, said his dream in retirement is to “sit and criticise like Clive Woodward. Tell Clive I said that, ” he teased. Japan, though, are playing Scotland in Gloucester on Wednesday and Jones is going nowhere yet. “We’re not done, mate, ” he said. “We came here to make the quarter-finals.”

The next rugby World Cup will be held in a country that had won one game in the tournament – a 52-8 victory over Zimbabwe 24 years ago. But the sport’s biggest event pitching its tent in Japan (2019) is no big deal now. Instead it seems a fitting reward.

Sussex is strong on club rugby, but the town “that looks like it’s helping police with their inquiries, ” according to Keith Waterhouse, has never featured strongly on the world rugby map. The ‘city by the sea’ has its racecourse, with one toe still in the Brighton Rock era, county cricket at Hove and a couple of lower league oval ball clubs. But the 15-man game was really planting a flag in unknown territory with this shock on the turf where Brighton and Hove Albion of football’s Championship ply their trade.

Japan had not won in 18 consecutive World Cup fixtures. That record hardly entitled them to take the torch four years from now but the entertainment they lavished on this audience had local hearts pounding.

You can make any claim you like on paper, but only when the event arrives can you tell whether the first-time hosts like what they see. Such is the enthusiasm in Britain for global sporting events that it is starting to sound like a redundant question. Wherever you send the matches, the locals will embrace them. There were said to be 300, 000 applications for the 29, 000 tickets for each of this weekend’s games here: the apparent mismatch of the Springboks v the Brave Blossoms and the tighter Sunday contest of USA v Samoa.

Brighton had already been transformed into Little Tokyo. South African fans held their end up but were vastly outnumbered by Japanese visitors and locals favouring the underdog. In town, the Old Steine became a Japanese zone, with food by Moshimo restaurant, a groundbreaker in the town’s culinary diversification. In fact you could say the average Brighton hipster needs no second invitation to eat sushi while striking a zeitgeist pose.

The fan zone on Brighton beach is the most photogenic of this World Cup: right next to the pier, and beneath the Wheel (a mini-London eye). Rugby rolled its tanks right on to crazy golf’s lawn, on a day when summer warmth made a comeback. On the promenade Japanese news crews sent back images of the classic English seaside. In Brighton, the Kiss-me-quick heritage is still visible but is now overlain by a more knowing, trendy culture.

Samoa’s Faifili Levave picked up on that Londonisation (as locals like to grumble). He enthused about Brighton’s “very funky-cool vibe” but knows there are some places a professional rugby player must not go. “I haven’t made my way down the pier, ” he said. “I’m told there are some good donuts down there. Hence why I don’t want to head down there.” Birmingham is next for Samoa, but Levave admitted: “We don’t really want to leave Brighton.”

A lot of campaigning and love went into the creation of this so-called ‘Premier League-ready’ ground, which opened in July 2011. Championship football and concerts have kept the lights ablaze in its Downland nest. Those in this supposedly louche seaside community who were watching a rugby international live for the first time will never forget the valour and skill of Japan.

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