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Letter from Japan: Baby oil and 15,000 people at a Wales training session

Warren Gatland’s side have had massive local support, but Ireland are staying under the radar.

IT’S ALL GETTING a little bit weird and the World Cup hasn’t even kicked off yet.

This morning involved an hour-long train commute to the Springboks’ hotel, which is located next door to Disneyland in Tokyo Bay. Getting the Mickey Mouse monorail to hear from Pieter-Steph du Toit and Faf de Klerk was certainly a new experience.

The Boks spent most of the media event chatting about the All Blacks ahead of what should be a titanic clash on Saturday in Yokohama, but there was a moment of pure comic relief amidst the serious stuff.

japan-rugby-wales Warren Gatland's Wales training today. Source: AP/PA Images

Having seen reports that Warren Gatland’s Wales have put baby oil on rugby balls during training in a bid to mimic the sweat that will have an effect in the humid conditions in Japan, one Kiwi journalist had a ballsy stab at getting something original from the Boks but butchered the opening to his question.

“Guys, I’ve heard that Warren Gatland has been putting baby oil on his balls…”

His face dropped, the room erupted in laughter.

“I mean his rugby balls!”

Meanwhile, over at the All Blacks’ press conference in Tokyo, Steve Hansen was also asked about the baby oil.

“Do you want to rephrase what you said?” replied Hansen. “You said Warren Gatland has been putting baby oil on his balls, that’s probably not the headline you want.”

The silliness continued with reports that Scotland put shampoo and conditioner on their rugby balls during pre-season training. 

We still have four days until the actual rugby gets underway so expect more along those lines perhaps, although the excitement for Friday – when Japan host Russia in Tokyo – is very real among rugby fans.

Australia versus Fiji, France against Argentina, and that clash between the Boks and All Blacks should make for a tasty day two.

With sumo wrestling currently on the sporting agenda – there are only six tournaments each year – there has been little room for rugby in some media outlets, but others have been sending journalists to interview the arriving teams.

Most questions have centred around the visitors’ perceptions of Japanese rugby, although Ireland captain Rory Best had to wrestle with a tough one when asked for his views on Brexit.

rory-best Ireland captain Rory Best. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I think some of the issues with Brexit is that nobody really knows what the issue is but it’s something I don’t even think we’ve finalised a date to leave yet,” responded Best as Joe Schmidt beside him laughed.

“But I think the great thing about Irish rugby – OK, over this last little bit of political instability, but more so in the sort of the late ’70s, ’80s, early ’90s – was that Irish rugby transcends that and that it was always about the sport and it was all about an island playing together and pulling together and this is a great opportunity for us to do this on the world stage.”

Speaking of wrestling, a visit to the sumo tournament in the Ryogoku area of Tokyo was fascinating, with the explosive power off the mark and incredible balance of the competitors suggesting that many of them might have made decent rugby players. 

Indeed, one local report suggests that sumo could suffer if this World Cup convinces more Japanese kids to give rugby a go.

There is much hope within World Rugby that this tournament will leave a lasting and impactful legacy, potentially ensuring Japan becomes a real power in the future, but it remains to be seen if that works out.

The incredible sight of 15,000 locals attending Wales’ open training session in the city of Kitakyushu today suggests that there is a huge thirst for this World Cup, particularly with people queueing for hours beforehand to get a good seat.

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Those 15,000 people sang the Welsh anthem en masse as Gatland’s side trained, a truly remarkable sight and sound.

Kitakyushu has been covered with Welsh flags all week, with Gatland’s men there for their final pre-World Cup training camp, while their bus has been applauded and cheered everywhere it has driven.

Tweet by @Welsh Rugby Union 🏉 Source: Welsh Rugby Union 🏉/Twitter

The Welsh Rugby Union has been running a programme in Kitakyushu for the past three years with the aim of making it a ‘home-away-from-home’ for the team before the World Cup. The WRU has organised coaching sessions and children’s events in order to build support. The results are clear.

While many teams have been out and about, diving into Japanese culture, Ireland have gone for a different approach by basing themselves in the quiet prefecture of Chiba – around 35km from Tokyo – since arriving last week. 

They haven’t had any open training sessions yet and Schmidt said they had come to Chiba because “we thought we’d be a little bit out of the way.” Different strokes for different folks.

The scenes from Kitakyushu are encouraging but the best way Japan can ensure this World Cup has a lasting impact is by performing well on the pitch. Jamie Joseph’s team have targeted a quarter-final, but they face a tough task upsetting Ireland and Scotland.

As yet, no word on what the hosts have been doing with their rugby balls.

- This article was updated at 4.55pm to correct a typo in the 17th paragraph.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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