By Rich Freeman
Eighteen months ago, the Japan Rugby Football Union (JRFU) felt it was about to enter the big time. An international Sevens tournament had been planned, as a forerunner for Tokyo rejoining the HSBC Sevens World Series, the Pacific Nations Cup was set to be staged in the Land of the Rising Sun, and the hope was the tournaments would lead to a growing awareness of the sport as Japan looks ahead to Rugby World Cup 2019.
But then came 11 March. The huge earthquake and resulting tsunami that devastated the Tohoku region struck the day the Webb Ellis Cup was on display in Tokyo.
An hour or so after the official proceedings had finished, former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori (now president of the JRFU) and Brave Blossoms captain Takashi Kikutani were having an informal chat with some journalists in the car park at the Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground when the surrounding buildings started swaying violently.
It was soon obvious that the country was dealing with a massive emergency and rugby was, quite rightly, pushed right down the list of priorities.
With the situation at the nuclear plant at Fukushima causing concern, it was decided that hosting international teams would be problematic to say the least. Japan was forced to play all its HSBC Asian 5 Nations matches on the road, and the PNC was moved offshore with the exception of Japan’s opening match against Samoa.
“It is fitting that Samoa, who experienced the devastating impact of a tsunami in 2009, will play their match against Japan in Tokyo as scheduled in a show of solidarity and support,” said IRB Regional General Manager for Oceania and Tournament Director William Glenwright at the time.
Ironically, that opening match against Samoa proved to be Japan's only loss of the tournament.
Having edged past Tonga in their second match, Japan went into its final match against Fiji knowing it needed a four-try win to pip the Ikale Tahi for the title.
An injury-time try by Yuta Imamura saw Japan lift the trophy for the first time and give a much needed boost for those back home, still struggling with the aftermath of 11 March.
One year on and there is still much to be done in the Tohoku region, but the area is slowly rebuilding as are the four teams taking part in the tournament.
Not one of the teams taking part in the PNC advanced beyond the pool stage at Rugby World Cup 2011, and the squads picked by the head coaches – all of whom have come on board after the tournament in New Zealand – reflect that.
Winning the war
Many of the sides are unrecognisable from the teams that took the field a year ago, as the coaches look towards the next Rugby World Cup.
“I want my side to be at its peak in September 2015,” said new Japan coach Eddie Jones. “Of course, our target is to win the Pacific Nations Cup. But if we lose a few battles to win the war then so be it.”
The “battles” start in Nagoya on 5 June before moving on to Tokyo, with the final match between Tonga and Fiji the only one not played on Japanese soil this time around as a result of the Fijians returning home to play Scotland on 16 June.
While the matches will be far away from the Tohoku region, the people of the area are still very much in everyone’s thoughts.
“The players have formed a charity on their own accord and raised about 400,000 yen at a Sevens tournament last weekend,” said Jones. “They want to play some good rugby and show what can be achieved and the PNC is a great forum for that.”