The Oxbridge role in the rise of rugby in Japan!

16 Oct 2019

The Japan rugby team has lit up the 2019 Rugby World Cup on home soil. Japan met South Africa in the quarter-finals as they looked to extend their unbeaten record after a dramatic pool stage that saw them beat both Ireland and Scotland.

Four years ago they beat the Springboks in Brighton in what remains one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history. However it wasn’t meant to be this year as South Africa crushed Japan’s dream with a 26-3 win, bringing an end to the home team’s run at the first Rugby World Cup staged in Asia.

Cambridge and Oxford Universities can reflect on the significant roles they played in the rise of rugby in Japan.

Japan v South Africa, Rugby World Cup 2015

The game took a toe hold in the country 110 years ago thanks to the efforts of two former Cambridge graduates, Professors Edward Clarke and Ginnosuke Tanaka, who introduced the sport to students at Keio University. Clarke wanted to give his students something to do as, he claimed, they ‘seemed to have nothing to occupy them out of doors’.

Fast forward to the Fifties, and Oxford University became the first Western sports team to tour the country at a time when relationships between the Japanese and the Western world were still difficult post WW2. The Dark Blues toured in 1952 and 1956, Cambridge followed in their footsteps in 1953 and in 1959 they joined forces for the first of three Combined tours to date (1959, 1983 and 2009).

CURUFC in Japan, 1953

The combined side won both matches in 1959 handsomely, 54-6 and 44-14, and the second test was played at the Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium. Prince Chichibu was the brother of the Emperor Hirohito and had studied at Magdalen College, Oxford.

There were 15 games in the Far East 60 years ago and then there was an even bigger event in 1983, when the Tokyo National Stadium hosted a special Varsity Match between the touring Oxford and Cambridge teams. After that, a Combined XV played All-Japan and won 14-10 in front of a capacity crowd.

See CURUFC legend Tony Rodgers, who played in the game against Japan, explain the full story HERE

Japanese rugby has come a long way since then. Jamie Joseph’s side went into the World Cup ranked 8th in the world and could end even higher up the scale over the next few weeks.

Oxford were back in Japan in September playing in the World Universities Tournament as they launched their preparations for the Varsity Match at Twickenham on Thursday 12 December.

OURFC World Universities Tournament, Japan 2019

It took some pretty special Oxbridge sides in the past to beat the ‘Land of the Rising Scrum’. There is no doubt the current ‘Cherry Blossoms’ have risen to new heights and are ready for more shocks at their own World Cup.

While they attempt to reach their cup final, the Oxford and Cambridge teams will be concentrating on getting things right for their own version at the home of English rugby in two months time.

1959 1st Test: Japan 6 – 54 Oxford & Cambridge
Thomas Baxter; Andy Hurst, Laurie Watts, John Hodgson, Mike Wade; Haydn Davies, Tony O’Connor; David Bird, Lodewyk Lombard, Dennis Jesson, Vic Harding, David Perry, David MacSweeney, Stephen Wilcock, Alfred Herbert

1959 2nd Test: Japan 14 – 44 Oxford & Cambridge XV
John Scott; Andy Hurst, Mike Wade, Laurie Watts, Pat Mills; Haydn Davies, Tony O’Connor; Dennis Jesson, Mike Wetson, Lodewyk Lombard, David MacSweeney, David Perry, Frans Bos, Alfred Herbert, Stephen Wilcock

1983: Japan 10 – 15 Oxford & Cambridge XV
Hugo MacNeill (captain); Simon Smith, Phil Crowe, Huw Davies, Mark Bailey; Stuart Barnes, John Cullen; John Kingston, Jon Webster, Dave Bush, Tony Rodgers, Martin Gargan, Nick Bennett, Jeremy Macklin, John Ellison

Reps: James Thomson, Rob Andrew, Dave Mills