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How puzzled Wallabies winger helped open Japanese rugby to the world

It’s all been surreal for former Wallabies winger Ian Williams as he travels throughout Japan during the Rugby World Cup, conscious of the rising groundswell of national interest and pride in the Brave Blossoms and knowing he played a small but significant role in bringing it all about. He holds a unique place in rugby history, the first player from a tier one nation to also play a Test for Japan. So he has two teams in the World Cup, one which is absolutely delighting him with the style of rugby it is playing, the other which is frustrating him to tears. No prizes for guessing which ones.

It is a fascinating tale how he found himself in Japan in 1989, knowing no Japanese, confronted by a society which at that stage had little grasp of English and certainly not in its public signage, and thrown headlong into corporate rugby which, still today, is the lifeblood of the Japanese game.  A member of the Grand Slam-winning Wallaby squad from 1984, Williams had been caught up in the cauldron of the 1989 British Lions series, where he saved his fellow winger David Campese’s  reputation in the second Test by sprinting from the far side of Ballymore to just ground the ball after a panicky attempted clearing kick by Campese was charged down, Lions players swarming  from everywhere to fall on the ball.

Undeterred, Campese went into the deciding third Test in Sydney and just as Australia was poised for victory threw “that pass” behind Greg Martin. This time Peabody, as Williams was nicknamed, couldn’t save him and Ieuan Evans fell on it to win the series.

Shortly after, Williams won a scholarship to Oxford and life seemed to be sorting itself out for the young corporate lawyer. As it happened he arrived to discover Oxford — which in those days was populated by a string of Wallabies and All Blacks — had been invited on an all-expenses-paid trip to Japan to celebrate the opening of the Prince Chichibu Stadium, now home to the Sunwolves. Then came the event which changed his life, and in a way changed Japanese rugby. T he president of Kobe Steel, admiring the zip-zip Australian T est winger who played the game so much in Japanese fashion, approached him with a job offer.

“How much do you make,” he asked. Williams, embarrassed at how little he earned, gave himself a $3000 “raise”.

“I’ll double it,” he said and mapped out a future in which he would work for the company in Australia, earn paid leave while on tour with the Wallabies and come to Japan when he could.  His year at Oxford completed, Williams headed off to Japan, all wide-eyed and eager to learn. He soon discovered that whatever he had learned at Oxford and in the years before would not prepare him for life in Japan. Only now, looking back, does he appreciate how dramatically life as a Kobe Steel player would affect him.

“It really changed everything,” Williams, now a partner in an international law firm in Australia, said. “Through the last 25 years, as a lawyer assisting Japanese companies, I feel like I’ve been given insights (into Japanese society) — I’ve been in the single man’s dormitory, I’ve been in the company dining hall having curry and rice every day for weeks and weeks on end. It’s a real connection and a real understanding. And it’s a bit humbling to be honest. On the rugby field you’re someone special (but at) 9am on Monday morning you’re back in the office, (with everyone) chain smoking.” What was instantly apparent to him was how Japanese rugby was, as he puts it, inversely proportionate to Australian rugby.

“In the late 1980s, by the time you finished a Wallabies game and had a shower there were tumbleweeds running through the carpark. It was kind of surreal. Yet we played a club final at the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo with 65,000 people. It was national holiday so everyone was sitting at home watching it, the guys playing it were on the equivalent of the David Letterman, Jay Leno Show that night.

“We were playing highly quality rugby but still club rugby, yet it was more popular and more media attention than playing top class international rugby. Juxtaposed to that, I think every little kid when they start out dreams of playing for the Wallabies and I’m sure the kids in New Zealand felt the same about the All Blacks.

“In Japan, however, it was all about your high school or university or your company team winning the All-Japan championship.

“No one much talked about national team selections. There was very little coverage in the paper.” (Williams, during the course of his five years in Japan became “fluent but illiterate”. “I can speak it and I can read it but I can’t write it.”)

The arrival of the J-League in 1992, Japan’s international soccer series, changed everything. While Japan wasn’t entirely competitive with the heavyweight teams of soccer, they could generally eke out a scoreline of 1-2, 2-3, 0-2, not like the 147-17 humiliation the All Blacks inflicted on the Brave Blossoms in the 95 Rugby World Cup.

By this stage, Williams had played his only T est for Japan. He had served his three-year residential qualification in Japan and when asked if he would make himself available, he thought “Why not?” His one and only T est wasn’t pretty but his international career literally finished with a try in the corner at Cardiff Arms Park as Wales put the cleaners through Japan 55-5 in 1993.

Bit by bit the doors were opening to foreigners. T he path that Williams blazed became over time a well-worn one, yet always the emphasis was on the company teams. The national team was almost an irrelevance.  Until the Miracle at Brighton, Eddie Jones’ gift to the land of his mother. He had drilled and drilled and drilled the Japanese players on the game he wanted them to play against the Springboks. And at the last World Cup, he sprung the trap: Japan 34, South Africa 32.

Said Williams: “Until that game in Brighton, Japan hadn’t won a World Cup game, apart from Zimbabwe (at the 1991 World Cup). Suddenly they come out and they beat South Africa, they beat Samoa, they beat the USA. T hey were the first team ever to win three games in the pool round and not advance.” T he torch was lit and it has burned passionately throughout this World Cup, with the Japanese nation torn between wanting to see the Brave Blossoms grapple with Scotland tomorrow in the vital Pool A match, the other half hoping the match will be abandoned because of the typhoon, clearing the way for Japan to advance to the quarter-finals for the first time.

Yet the 17 Tests he played for the Wallabies are not forgotten: “To be honest, I’ve got the great privilege of cheering for Australia, cheering for Japan. The quality of the Japanese play and their adventure and aggression in attack and in defence, it is the kind of rugby I enjoy watching.“I’ve had a lot more thrills watching the Japanese games than being kind of frustrated by Australia’s performance in their three games to date.”

The/Weekend Australian/Australian Mag azine, The (Australia) – October 12, 2019 – pag e 41 October 12, 2019 | Australian, The/Weekend Australian/Australian Mag azine, The (Australia) | Wayne Smith | Pag e 41

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