Aside from Typhoon Hagibis canceling three matches, thus far the rugby on display at the 2019 World Cup has been exemplary, just what the doctor ordered. And some nail-biting encounters and shocking upsets have helped to spice things up. But what the Rugby World Cup is really all about, is bringing people together over a shared love of the sport. Fans of all stripes have been thronging to the stadiums, pubs and Fanzones across Japan in their droves, and the oval ball fever has finally taken hold. For those who love the sport, it’s a wonderful sight indeed.

I spoke with some of the traveling supporters to find out what brought them to the 2019 Rugby World Cup, and to get their impressions of Japan as a host nation.

PJ Rovinelli (USA)

PJ Rovinelli is the Club President of Phoenix Rugby Club in Arizona, and the American native has flown solo to Japan for a week to feast his eyes on Asia’s first Rugby World Cup. PJ snagged tickets for three encounters – Argentina vs England, South Africa vs Canada, USA vs Argentina. And while he’s happy to see the Eagles in action during his stay, that’s not the only thing this trip is about. PJ is an ambassador for the sport, and has been spreading the gospel of grass-roots US rugby since he landed in Japan. Given the current state of affairs, anyone extolling the virtues of rugby has many a ready ear to listen to them.

PJ praised Japan’s “hospitality”, “cleanliness” and “efficiency” as a host nation; views echoed by many. PJ also said one of his top moments in Japan was lacing up the boots for a select rugby side composed of players from Tokyo Gaijin and Odawara Rugby Clubs respectively. “What makes this sport special is the camaraderie. Having a drink with people from all corners of the world is awesome. The rugby itself was exciting, fast and fun. This was truly an unforgettable experience,” he said.

Mark Jackson and the Old Halesonians (England)

Mark Jackson, a former player at amateur rugby club Old Halesonians RFC in Worcestershire, England, flew to Japan with two of his former teammates – Webber and Steve – and their respective other halves. The dedicated, six-strong squad are here for over three weeks in total, with tickets to all of England’s pool stage games – including England vs France, which was canceled due to Typhoon Hagibis. The trip has taken them from Sapporo down to Kobe and many other cities in between. Proudly clad in their distinctive ‘Old Hales’ tour kit, they’ve been basking in the joy of Japan’s rugby festivities since arriving in late September.

They’d never been to Japan before but saw the 2019 World Cup as a “good excuse to come.” Mark praised the collective spirit of traveling rugby fans up and down the country. “Rugby is the only sport where you get that,” he reckoned. And also gave a nod to riding go-karts around Tokyo as a trip highlight. Showing me pictures of his 6-foot 3-inch frame in a floppy-eared Pikachu outfit, he said, “It was absolutely brilliant!”

Terry Harrison and the QUB Touring Squad of 1976 (Ireland)

In 1976 the Queens University Belfast (QUB) rugby team from Northern Ireland toured Japan. They were only the third rugby team from the West to do so. Ever. In the process they played against a Japanese select XV, traveled the length of the country, and were fortunate enough to meet a demure Princess Chichibu.

43 years on and they are back with a 31-strong cohort. One of the chief organizers, Terry Harrison, told me, “The enthusiasm for rugby then, was just as now. We had very big crowds, 25,000-plus on two occasions… they played the same totally committed style [as today], a style to suit their [slight] physiques.”

The QUB rugby squad attended three games at this year’s Rugby World Cup – Ireland vs Scotland, Ireland vs Japan, Ireland vs Russia. “The atmosphere in each game was amazing, due to the home fans who adopted visiting teams in a way I cannot see happening anywhere else,” he said. Terry also reflects on Kyoto as a trip highlight. “Everyone loved Kyoto. We stayed beside the station, which was amazing, and visited the sights.”

The Beijing Aardvarks (China and Various Nations)

The Beijing Aardvarks, an expat rugby team located in the Chinese capital, threw together a “ragtag bunch” of current and former players to tour Japan during the competition – it was a celebration of the club’s 20th anniversary since inception. With players from China, New Zealand, England, Venezuela and beyond, they epitomize the diversity of nationalities in the sport that World Rugby is striving to make more commonplace.

While the humble, snout-nosed aardvark may seem like a rather unlikely choice of icon, the club’s name has charmingly inspired roots. Since the team “never wins the league,” they decided to call themselves the ‘Aardvarks’ because it’s the first word in the dictionary and therefore they would start every season at the top of the table (until the first game is played anyway).

The Aardvarks have, in some form, been all over the country and have represented the Chinese expat community, and their respective nations, at a variety of games. After playing in a friendly match against a local club in Kanagawa, one of their players remarked: “There is a host of nationalities here, and that’s what the spirit of rugby is all about, bringing people from different backgrounds together.”

Feature photo by Francois Nel – World Rugby via Getty Images