For some, rugby isn’t just a game. It’s an obsession: a fan’s experience at the Rugby World Cup

Updated 6:15 AM EDT, Mon October 7, 2019
A supporter ahead of the Rugby World Cup game between Wales and Georgia.
ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
A supporter ahead of the Rugby World Cup game between Wales and Georgia.
CNN —  

Y’all drink a lot.

That’s my first big takeaway from five nights in Japan for the Rugby World Cup.

I’m new to the sport. I’ve never played. I’d never even been to a match before Japan 2019.

But I do like beer. So, I figure I was more or less qualified to fly across the Pacific and soak up the atmosphere of rugby’s biggest tournament.

From my initial observations, rugby mostly revolves around drinking beer and singing songs about drinking beer. I actually bought a couple books covering the rules and history of the game and, by their own admission, it seems I’m not terribly far off.

When I landed in Japan, Nathan and Josh, my rugby-loving friends of almost 40 years, were already 35 kilometers outside Tokyo, down in the neighboring city of Yokohama to watch Scotland play Ireland.

They left me a key to our Airbnb, and we agreed to meet up somewhere back in Tokyo after the match. I mean, it’s only a metropolis of 14 million people. How hard could it be?

So, I had some time to walk around and explore. Probably a lot of time.

Pre-trip research led me to a unique nightlife area within Tokyo’s popular Shinjuku ward called Golden Gai, and I figured that would be a decent place to start my education of Japan and, to a slightly lesser extent, the game of rugby.

The Golden Gai is a series of quaint, narrow alleys lined with hundreds of tiny bars. Like really small bars. No hyperbole: You could toss a baby seal from one end to the other without hurting your back. You shouldn’t. But you could.

READ: ‘They feel they can win’: George Gregan on Japan’s World Cup hopes

Peaking into a random bar called Frog, I found four of the seven seats already occupied by guys watching the Scotland-Ireland match on TV. I asked if I could join. “Come in, mate,” they said.

Later, when I leaned against the TV and accidentally turned it off, they may or may not have momentarily regretted welcoming me into their lives.

Two of the patrons were from New Zealand and the other two were Americans. We were soon joined by a South African and a German, thus bringing Frog to its maximum capacity.

As we drank beer … and sake … and whiskey, we watched the match (which I’m told was a bit of a stinker) and made some requisite small talk. But I was mostly interested in a side-conversation being shared by the South African and the German, the latter of whom also appeared, like me, to be new to the sport.

02:16 - Source: CNN
Meet the Rugby World Cup's body-painting superfan

The South African began tutoring the German about the different positions players occupy on the pitch.

“One, two, and three are short and fat,” he explained. “Four and five are tall. Six and seven are fast.”

I was still generally confused as to their specific roles, despite this seemingly necessary exercise in body shaming.

After the match, as rain moved over Tokyo, I scurried into another bar called Troll II, and it was here (clearly by magic) that I eventually met up with Nathan and Josh. It’s also where, subsequently, things get a little hazy.

Which is to say we never really left the Golden Gai. And, according to cell phone video evidence, we spent the rest of the night in another tiny bar with some Australians and Irish, singing songs at the top of our lungs. One of the Australian guys, a former rugby player and an absolute unit of protein consumption, dutifully removed his shirt for “Country Roads.” As you do.

READ: 230 days, 27 countries, 20,093km: duo cycle from London to Tokyo for Rugby World Cup

It was all good fun. I felt a part of something. Something comfortably familiar, yet uniquely foreign. Though everyone was speaking English, it was almost like they were conversing in a different language. The language of rugby. I caught on. Booze is a hell of translator.

My true rugby education, however, would come the following night.

Monday morning, after watching further video evidence of Golden Gai’s merriment, which included a rousing rendition of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “I Like Big Butts,” we used our week-long, pre-paid Japan Rail rail passes to hop aboard a bullet train heading 350km west to Nagoya.

There, we checked into our hotel, hydrated, and managed a quick (yet, not particularly satisfying) nap. Then it was back to the station for another series of trains heading to the City of Toyota Stadium to watch Wales play Georgia.

And it was on one of those rail segments where I met Paul Erskine, a 54-year-old South African man who, in a bid to set a rather unusual rugby-viewing world record, detailed to me how he was in Japan for 42 days with tickets to attend 36 matches because, obviously, he was a huge fan, but also a thrill-seeking adventurer.