Loose Pass: Welcoming hosts, Island issues and Chester

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with welcoming hosts, Samoa’s and Tonga’s problems, and Springbok great Chester Williams…

A warm welcome

Nine days to go, but now the wind has died down, the party is already up and running in earnest. The Japanese are proving themselves worthy hosts already, happy to go the extra yard. For example: who would ever have imagined ‘Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau‘ being sung by a Japanese choir? Not least when the only evidence of any other cross-cultural singing between the two nations is Max Boyce’s ‘Asso Asso Yogoshi’!

For a further example, look no further than the schoolchildren in Kashiwa who put on a haka to match the very finest delivered by this tournament’s favourites. Or the 6,000 who turned up to watch a Springbok training session in Kagoshima on Monday.

But best of all was the welcome reserved for England, who tried to arrive but couldn’t after wind and rain hammered Tokyo and left the squad stuck in a plane in Tokyo airport for five hours. Given the BA strikes and the remnants of Hurricane Dorian that have left parts of the UK soaking over the past couple of days, the English must have felt right at home. Rumours that Japanese politicians would come to the reception and stand there shouting at each other wearing blond wigs for a few hours proved wide of the mark, however.

Welcome to Miyazaki 宮崎#RWC2019 #CarryThemHome pic.twitter.com/x3SF6QDF9j

— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) September 10, 2019

Australia’s arrival has been delayed too, ostensibly also because of Typhoon Faxai, but Scotland have made it safely there, where their arrival was noteworthy perhaps for the best moment of trying to fit in: a local journalist donning a scrum cap to wear at his interviews.

It’s going to be a fun World Cup at the tables of these hosts.

An opportunity missed

It wasn’t just the scoreline, it was the memories. As Tonga shipped try after try against the All Blacks last weekend, you had to think back to some of the more epic clashes between the two: the war-dance stand-off in 2003 and the two World Cup pool meetings between the two since. Heck, it’s only eight years since Tonga were good enough to beat France.

Meanwhile, a review of Samoa this week was damning about the personnel. Not those going, but those who just couldn’t give up club time and salaries. Melani Nanai and Jordan Taufua are the two best-known names, but there were others too, who just couldn’t do without their wages and were never going to get anything from their unions.

Not that that is particularly the unions’ faults either, but the dreadful way in which rugby’s structures run roughshod over a region that produces more than 20 per cent of the globe’s professional players is as shameless as it is shameful.

How many top-class teams from these two countries, and Fiji, have been lost to the fact that, as tiny commercial markets, the unions can’t produce the revenue they need to keep or play the creams of their crops? How many potential teams of players from these nations play for other countries of more means and a willingness to wait out residency periods?

Both Samoa and Tonga have good squads of players. Both have good coaches and will likely produce better results than the warm-up games have hinted at. But neither will be at full strength at a World Cup that absolutely promises to be closer than ever. Which, given the way the game and its finances have developed over the past few years, is a travesty.

Cheers, Chester

The defining moment of Chester Williams’ career did not come in 1995, as many suspect, but in 1999 when he was dropped from the Springbok squad. The reason? It is said that Nick Mallett told Williams he had already filled the squad with his quota of black players and that was enough.

The world of rugby mourns the passing of @Springboks great Chester Williams. A true legend on and off the pitch! pic.twitter.com/c6nXHNcp2y

— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) September 6, 2019

Williams, who retired from playing in 2000, continued to remind people that he considered his marketing as the big post-apartheid black success as a sham, and that he never felt accepted within the squad or the set-up, that he always felt he was the black face to put on an image rather than the player the coaches wanted there.

But he still defined a generation and served as a beacon of hope for the post-apartheid era. And it is tragic that he has passed just days before South Africa’s World Cup is opened against New Zealand, led by a black player in charge of a squad where black players are as plentiful as their places are merited. His place in history is assured.

Loose Pass compiled by Lawrence Nolan