The last time Japan played an international match at Tokyo stadium, almost 50,000 people watched the greatest adventure in the country’s rugby history come to an end against an invincible Springboks side who went on to lift the Webb Ellis Cup.
Japan was still basking in the glow of the 2019 Rugby World Cup when the coronavirus pandemic arrived and turned the sporting calendar upside down. Since then, the Brave Blossoms have played just two Tests, away to the British & Irish Lions and Ireland, since their 26-3 quarter-final defeat by South Africa.
On Monday Japan’s sevens side returned to the scene of their bigger brothers’ honourable exit from a tournament in which they demolished Ireland and Scotland and became practically everyone’s other favourite team.
Only this time, the red-and-white hooped masses who had roared their team into the history books and prompted talk of a rugby revolution to come were absent.
The Olympic sevens tournament, like most other sports at Tokyo 2020, is being played at empty stadiums – a blow to local fans, but one many have come to accept as the price of hosting an Olympic Games in the middle of a pandemic.
Outside the stadium, the people of Chofu, a western Tokyo suburb, went about their mid-morning business, possibly unaware that their stadium will be the centre of the rugby world’s attention for the next few days.
It is hard to overstate the contrast between the sevens’ silent openers at Tokyo 2020 on Monday with the heady camaraderie of the world cup, when police officers directed fans towards the venue rather than away from it, and when the streets reverberated with myriad languages spoken by supporters fuelled by ice-cold beer and fried noodles.
“The lack of rugby being played in Japan in the last 18 months is not the legacy that any of us were looking for,” World Rugby’s chief executive, Alan Gilpin, said during a break in the action on Monday.
Recalling happy memories of those six weeks, despite the death and destruction wrought by Typhoon Hagibis, Gilpin added: “But we know that what we have as a legacy from the world cup is more people playing rugby in Japan and more interest in rugby in general.
“Hopefully, the broadcast figures will show more people are interested than ever before. And I think we’ll see that legacy build from now. There’s huge Japanese fan interest in the France 2023 World Cup.”
The real challenge, though, will not be to encourage the Japanese to get involved as observers, but to sustain the momentum that created 2.25 million new rugby players in Asia, including 1.18 million in Japan, before and after the tournament.
An Olympic run by Japan’s sevens team to match that of their counterparts at the World Cup would be the perfect antidote to the empty seats greeting the men’s and women’s teams in Tokyo this summer.
Japan, after all, came close to becoming the story of the tournament when the sevens made their Olympic debut in Rio, beating France and New Zealand on the way to the semi-finals before losing to South Africa in the bronze-medal match.
In Monday’s Pool B fixtures, the hosts threatened to pick up where they left off five years ago, leading Fiji 14-12 at the break before the defending Olympic champions rallied to win 24-19 through two second-half tries from Waisea Nacuqu.
In the second session, Japan were crushed 34-0 by a Great Britain side that had already beaten Canada 24-0 in the morning. Japan will now need a big win over the Canadians, who lost 28-14 to Fiji, to make the quarter-finals as one of the top third-placed pool finishers.
“Coming out for the first game is always exciting,” Team GB’s captain, Tom Mitchell, said. “It’s a little bit strange in an empty stadium but it’s still a beautiful place to play some rugby. We’ve waited for this opportunity for a long time so there’s a lot of excitement, and I think the guys handled that really, really well.
“I’m just so pleased, especially for the boys running out as first-time Olympians. It’s a massive, proud moment for all of us to see them achieve that, and a nod to the second-time Olympian old-heads doing it as well.”
Japanese rugby fans who were there to witness the heroics of 2019 were trying to reconcile their disappointment at being shut out of the Olympics with concern over the recent coronavirus surge in Tokyo.
“People talked about the Rugby World Cup as the best ever,” Hisayoshi Tanaka told the Guardian. “I was really looking forward to everything about Olympic rugby … the pre-tournament training camps, meeting fans from other countries and them getting to know more about Japan. And then the pandemic came along.
“It’s such a shame.”