Japan Rugby League One, the premier rugby league in the nation, opened its 2022-23 season! The league’s teams have been playing very intense and exciting games all around the country.
Many rugby fans from around the world came to Japan to watch the 2019 Rugby World Cup held here. The intensity and outstanding play exhibited by these world-class athletes also impressed Japanese people.
January 2021 saw the spectacular launch of League One’s first season, carrying on the excitement of the 2019 Rugby World Cup and showcasing the sensational play of athletes from Japan as well as other countries.
Expectations are even greater now for the second season spanning 2022 and 2023. Perhaps, the people looking forward to this day the most are the ones living in the host area. Even during the off-season, the host areas have further expanded exchanges with the players, and whole towns have even come out to support their team in preseason matches. The term “host area” is not one that people are very familiar with, but they probably get the gist of it once they recall terms such as “home and visitor” which are used in professional baseball, “home and away” from J League soccer, and “host and visitor” for League One games.
League One’s vision is “Let’s create the world’s best from your city. By making the quality of everything around the League One worthy of the world’s best, we will create landscapes filled with exciting experiences in our daily life.” (League One official website)
In order to realize this vision, it was decided that a host area would serve as the base for a team’s operations and activities in an attempt to form an identity in which the fans, team, companies, and the community unite together as one. Each team recognizes that the community is part of its own identity and incorporates the locality’s name into its team name as it faces off and competes against other teams.
Journal-ONE will focus on the host area in presenting League One’s appeal, mainly through its close rapport with the people.
This report covers the season opener held at Kashiwanoha Park Athletic Field in Chiba Prefecture, a competition in which the Green Rockets Tokatsu hosted the Hanazono Kintetsu Liners. The stadium was bustling with many fans well before the start of the game.
Some eight cities are listed in the Green Rockets Tokatsu host area!
The Green Rockets Tokatsu is quite a rare team with the cities of Abiko where the team practices, Kashiwa where Kashiwanoha Park Athletic Field is located, Matsudo, Nagareyama, Noda, Kamagaya, Shiroi, Inzai and Tokatsu, the northwestern region of Chiba Prefecture, all rooting for the team.
Journal-ONE talked with fans who were recharging their cheering energy with beer and sausages before the game.
Those who said things like “They’ve continued to lose, so they’ve gotta get one win first!” and “I hope they maintain the good form that they showed during preseason matches and get the first win in a host game!” were definitely fans living in Abiko and Kashiwa cities of the host area. Fans coordinated their outfits by wearing green, the Green Rockets’ team color. They enjoyed a variety of events and booths as well as food and beverages served from food trucks before the start of the game.
The events also included a performance by NEC Sparkles, NEC’s official cheer dance and cheerleading team which Journal-ONE has previously featured. Sparkles gave an acrobatic performance, their specialty, thrilling the elementary second and third graders from Abiko Rugby School, who had come to watch the match.
Hideyuki Yamamoto, the group’s chaperone, said, “We practice once a week at the Green Rockets’ field. Today, we all came here to support the team so they can win.” The children have been eagerly looking forward to seeing the Green Rockets, whom they really admire, play in today’s game.
Game day was Abiko Host Town Day. On this day, of the eight cities in the host area, Abiko City spearheaded the game and festivities, making the game a thrilling and exciting experience. Hiroaki Iizuka from the Akiko City Citizen Cooperation & Promotion Division was busy interacting with fans and the Abiko City mascot character Teganuma Unaki-san at a special booth set up just for today’s game.
“All eight municipalities are wholeheartedly supporting our team!” said Iizuka. He talked about how he wants to take make good use of the opportunity provided by the Green Rockets Tokatsu to promote more and more exchange among the eight cities. Iizuka is one of the fans who has been really looking forward to this opening game.
Before the game, Sparkles performed and Junichiro Hoshino, the mayor of Abiko City, also came running to cheer on the team on behalf of the host area.
Mayor Hoshino said, “Sport has an amazing power to put a smile on a child’s face. Everyone in the eight cities, which make up the Green Rockets Tokatsu host area, wants to cheer on the team and energize this region. Today, I hope the team shows us the first win of the season right before our very eyes!” The mayor was right there with the fans, passionately cheering on the team.
The game began at 14:31 with a crowd of 3,150 in attendance!
Green Rockets Tokatsu captain Lomano Lemeki yelled out, “We can hear you real good.” Jackson Garden-Bachop of the Hanazono Kintetsu Liners said, “With so many fans watching, our excitement and anticipation has been building ever since warm-ups. Your cheers have been so loud that the players can hardly hear each other.” Both teams launched a barrage of intense plays in unison with the fans cheering in the stands.
At both the 5 and 15-minute marks, the Green Rockets Tokatsu scored tries one after another. The Hanazono Kintetsu Liners struck back, scoring tries at the 27 and 42-minute marks. This fast-paced thriller continued with one team advancing and then the other.
The Green Rockets Tokatsu’s Christian Laui, who was overjoyed to score his first try in his first cap at the 15-minute mark of the first half, is a graduate of Nippon Sport Science University Kashiwa High School in the host area’s Kashiwa City. After the game, he said, “I found out that many people who have encouraged me over the years came out to support us today. I’m really glad that I was able to express my gratitude by scoring a try.” Just as he stated, it was the energy of the host area fans that gave the players the boost they needed!
The teams returned to the field after the first half with the Green Rockets Tokatsu leading the game 19 to 15. At the 3-minute mark of the second half, the Green Rockets Tokatsu scored tries and extended the point spread. However, it was right then that the Hanazono Kintetsu Liners started to rally a comeback!
“[Having moved up a division this season] We have returned to the place where we should be,” said Shohei Nonaka, the Hanazono Kintetsu Liners’ captain. True to these words, all the players demonstrated their characteristic offensive capabilities even in the top league, scoring consecutive tries at the 12 and 15-minute marks for a successful comeback.
However, sustained by the loud roar of the host area fans and fired up to get their first league victory (not counting playoff and default wins), the Green Rockets Tokatsu scored another try to rally back from behind at the 21-minute mark. They then blew ahead with another try at the 30-minute mark.
Hanazono Kintetsu Liners reciprocated with a try. As the match went into lost time, the score was a close 36 to 34.
Seeking to make a dramatic comeback with the last play, the Hanazono Kintetsu Liners set up a 31-phase attack! To counter, Green Rockets Tokatsu was able to execute a comprehensive defense to hold off the attack without allowing any penalties. As Lemeki said, “We anticipated this kind of play and trained every week to run, run, and tackle without even touching the ball in order to strengthen our defense.”
In the end, the Green Rockets Tokatsu came out on top by two points in a thrilling display of rugby. They secured their first win in the opening game in their host area! Green Rockets Tokatsu, which suffered 13 successive losses last year, achieved their first victory in 1,527 days, not counting promotion and relegation matches. The truly happy smiles of the fans, players, and everyone involved showed how memorable this moment was.
After the game, Head Coach Robert Taylor expressed the team’s appreciation to the host area fans, “We are very happy that we could give the fans a victory in this monumental League One opener. Even though we were down and under pressure, I am very proud of the players who gave it their all and came back to win. We are very happy that so many fans came out to support us, an upswing from last season, and it was very wonderful to deliver a victory.”
Also impressed by the enthusiasm of the fans, Hanazono Kintetsu Liners Head Coach Yoshitake Mizuma said, “This is quite different from Division I.” Giving his word that they would do better next time, he added, “League games have just begun and we want to maintain our own style of play and do our best in the upcoming Kansai Derby.”
Lemeki said, “The hopes of everyone who came out in support reached us. Even when we were fighting tooth and nail on defense at the end, we could hear you loud and clear. If you come out to support us in every game from now on, we will pile up more wins. We will do our best to be a team that you can love, so please support us.” His message illustrates the success of the second season of League One, which aims to be the best league in the world and united with the fans.
League One 2022-2023 season games are scheduled through April 2023. In September 2023, the 2023 Rugby World Cup will be held in France. So, you can’t miss this chance to see up close the wonderful play of players representing Japan as well as other countries in addition to players who hope to represent their countries.
Journal-ONE will be reporting on how fantastic League One is through the close rapport of the players and people of the host area. Be sure not to miss our upcoming articles!