By Jonty Cook
Every year – barring the Covid Era – the Shikoku University hosts a touch rugby tournament over a summer weekend for all to participate in. This year, we managed to scrounge up an Ehime team of 5 people to play, with another joining along as our support, photographer, and sideline coach. Not quite the team of a required six on the field, but we were ready to accept our role as the scrappy underdogs, underestimated by everyone and determined to shock and awe. We were the Ehime Goonies.
We began our training in earnest. We all – except me, oops – gathered in Matsuyama to hone our skills and physiques into the perfect touch rugby specimens. And the regime was brutal, a gruelling torment that stretched us to our very limits, and then beyond, breaking us to rebuild us as harder than reinforced concrete, as better, faster than Bryan Habana (ex-international for South Africa supposedly faster than a cheetah, but I believe Habana was given an unfair head start), and each stronger individually than an All-Blacks scrum. Truly, we would be unstoppable. A force to truly be reckoned with, as powerful as the sun and twice as brilliant. Titans in our own right, unsurpassable.
We threw a frisbee around for two hours.
The training montage may need to be revised a teensy bit in the upcoming movie…
If you don’t know what touch rugby is, here’s a very brief rundown: teams have six players on the pitch, with unlimited substitutions; the team with the ball (attacking) run forwards with the aim of touching the ball down in the opponent’s scoring area at the far end of the pitch (called a “try”), but can only pass the ball backwards; the team without the ball (defending) must touch the ball carrier, forcing them to have to put the ball on the ground and step over it; the attacking team get six touches to score at the opponent’s end of the pitch; once six touches occur, or the ball is dropped, or another rule is infringed (such as passing it forwards), the ball is turned over to the defending team. Nice and simple, and significantly less likely to result in the injuries that rugby union typically leads to. Halves were just ten minutes each, with a short break in between. It’s fun, exciting, and easy to get the hang of. The only problem for us is that a frisbee does not typically feature in a match (although I maintain that replacing the ball with a frisbee would be a phenomenal alternate rule). The tournament itself is nice and casual, there’s no real stakes past pride and everyone’s just there to have a laugh. Especially if, like three of our five members, you’ve never touched a rugby ball in your life.
The day before the tournament began, we all gathered at Matsuyama train station, where we rented a car and began the two-ish hour trip to Miyoshi in Tokushima. Time in the car was wisely spent not creating a strategy for the matches or designating roles in the team or in any way preparing for the tournament ahead – after all, we didn’t want to give our opponents the impression that we knew what we were doing. Instead, time was devoted to pretty much anything else, including the creation of a samurai/pirate dog designed to elicit as much sympathy from a reader as possible through ever-more bizarre ailments. In retrospect, a little messed up but it somehow did make the journey fly by. Yes, I promise this is still about touch rugby. (Editor’s note: Jonty has neglected to mention how much of the trip involved a discussion of the charms of Cheez-Its).
Soon enough, although deep into night, we had arrived at the campsite by the rugby ground and where we would be staying for the next couple nights. The campsite itself was nice and large, with a bustling atmosphere of families and rugby players throughout the weekend. We ourselves were camped up in a lodge with a couple of beds, some futons, and most importantly a fridge-freezer. We grabbed a bite to eat from the nearby store and – eventually – turned in for the night.
The next morning, we woke up ready and raring to go, and charged down to the site of the tournament at the absolute crack of dawn like the well-disciplined team of professionals that we were. We managed to register and get our gazebo set up and – for the first time – got to not only touch a rugby ball but also pass it around. Surrounding us was our competition, fierce and hungry looking in matching uniforms, and practicing manoeuvres that had clearly been drilled into them hundreds, if not thousands, of times before. We, in our literally ragtag maybe-suitable outfits learning how to jog and pass at the same time, were definitely feeling somewhat out of our depth. Feeling a bit overwhelmed, we focused on warming ourselves up and just getting into a flow of things, but we knew we were outclassed in every metric measurable.
Then, as despair threatened to reach a crescendo, came Mark. A rugby veteran, and as grizzled as a bear, Mark arrived before us a messiah. He had moved to Japan as a JET back in the 90s and had stayed ever since, and in fact was one of the organisers for the tournament. He was to join us as our sixth member, and with his vast experience began teaching us how to actually play tag rugby. With the new-found imparted wisdom and bolstered by a near quadrupling of years of experience we were now prepared for our first match.
While we were easily outmatched and failed to put up even a single score in the books, we’d managed to string together a few genuinely decent plays and kept our tries and penalties conceded to a very-much unexpected minimum. From the sidelines it probably looked like an uncoordinated mess but that didn’t matter, we were doing better than we had hoped. And we were improving; in the second game we managed to score a try, and by the third game we’d stopped making lots of mistakes and had started developing a couple of strategies – we were looking less and less like a group of people that’d only started playing that day and more and more like a (very) amateur team. We were getting our passing down, our game flow was increasing, and our marking was having a greater impact in our defence. We were still losing our matches, but we were beginning to put up a fight.
The problem was all six of us were playing all of every single match. Whilst our opponents could swap out players and rest up, we had no such luxury, and it was showing. The little knocks and niggles were compounding our exhaustion. We had no hope of keeping up with the practiced and rested teams, and certainly by the last match it was a struggle to even get running. We ended the first day with no wins and a mere couple of tries to our name. However, we could certainly be proud of ourselves – we were outclassed and outnumbered, but we were clearly much improved from our first match to our last of the day. The next day promised some more even matches than this day had given us.
Among all the dedicated teams of touch rugby players at the tournament was one other bunch of ragtags and new players: the Tokushima JETs. Our downtime during matches were spent chatting with and cheering on this fellow band of competition misfits. Similar to us, they were struggling with their more skilled opponents, a number of whom it turned out had played or were playing for Japan’s national touch rugby team – which makes scoring against them a phenomenal boast, just as long as you don’t mention that national touch rugby teams usually don’t have a massive pool of players to choose from in the first place. The Tokushima JETs, however, could substitute players during the match and so by the end of the day were better off than our poor, broken bodies. Nevertheless, every single member of the two groups had given their all throughout the day and had earnt a hearty meal and relaxation.
So, we then went to Prison.
And whilst the sixteen of us dug into our array of food and drinks, we wasted the night away with tales and laughs, swapping stories from the day and of travels around Japan and beyond. We talked about our experiences teaching at our schools, of funny incidences and misunderstandings, and found commonality in petty complaints and incredulities that always come with living in a foreign culture. But above all else, we got to hold a cute little lizard that the bar kept near the entrance. With bonds forged and cemented, we headed home and looked to rest for the next day’s battles.
The second day had a slightly different format – the teams were split into two divisions, with the best-performing teams competing against each other whilst the not-so-best-performing teams duked it out in a best-of-the-rest round robin. Rather unsurprisingly, it was in this latter division where we found ourselves, along with the fellow JETs of Tokushima. These matches were significantly closer and well-contested, with lots of back-and-forth all over the pitch. Additionally, as these were the teams taking the tournament less seriously, these matches were extremely fun, with plenty of friendly jibes, jokes, and jeering, accompanied by a good amount of cross-team celebration and commiseration. Despite all this though, we still failed to win a single match – our high individual game time relative to the other teams had seriously run us ragged – but it didn’t matter, we were having an absolute blast. Plus, we had the very kind help of Mao from the Tokushima JETs tag in as a sub once our tiredness outgrew our pride, so we weren’t outright dying on the pitch from the heat.
Our day-two matches would culminate in THE most important match of the weekend: Ehime vs Tokushima. Despite the fatigue on both sides of the pitch, the atmosphere was fierce. This was the match neither team wanted to lose, not against their historic rivals of old. If you’ll pardon the UK expression, this was the local derby – a football match against another local team, often between rival clubs, and they can get a lil’ bit extremely violent. Not a bowler hat, which I learnt is apparently what a ‘derby’ is in North America, or at least according to Google. Even though we were dog-tired from two whole days of near non-stop rugby, every single player put their all in, no quarters were given. This was a match to be won in the most intense of clashes, with endless prestige in victory and shame in defeat. In the end though, we just couldn’t do enough, and our last match – our last chance to win – finished, in one final loss. We shook hands, accepting this defeat, half-relieved to finally be done and allowed to rest our weary legs. The tournament was over.
The last thing to do before we could finish though was to acknowledge the winners of the tournament, the Most Valuable Players from each team, and the phenomenal job the organisers had done. As if to signal the end of the show, curtains of rain had begun to fall as we celebrated the achievements of the two days. From the Goonies, Jyn was awarded with the prestigious and well-earnt MVP t-shirt, though all members had given some great performances throughout the games and our dedication to the cause could not be denied. We grabbed a big group photo, then got one of just the JETs, before saying goodbye to our fellow competitors and heading home.
In all, it had been two tough days of matches, sweltering heat, and loss. But in spite of all that, it was two days of making friends, having laughs, and just having a good ol’ time playing some beginner-friendly rugby. I must give Mark one last thank you for being such a great teammate and sport for us. I may be a bit predisposed as a life-long rugby lover, but that weekend is certainly a memory from my time in Japan that I’ll look back on fondly, and I’m certainly looking forward to doing it all again next year.
And next time, we’ll beat those damn Tokushima JETs.
Jonty Cook is a new JET in Ozu City. An avid rugby fan, he’s excited to go to some matches in the upcoming season supporting the Kobe Kobelco Steelers.