Following the Springboks around Japan in the 2019 Rugby World Cup

One of my earliest childhood memories is being woken by my dad at 4.30am on a Saturday morning to watch the Springboks take on the All Blacks in New Zealand. For 25 years I dreamt of watching the Springboks live in New Zealand and in 2011 that dream became a reality as Dyl and I spent an unforgettable two months following the boys around the Land of the Long White Cloud (sadly we didn’t get to watch the Springboks against New Zealand in New Zealand with Bryce Lawrence stealing our quarter-final against the Aussies in Wellington).

Four years later, and now living in London, we had the World Cup come to us. In the UK for the first time in 15 years, we followed the Boks one step further than in 2011 as we lost to New Zealand in the semi-final. That had seemed a long way off after watching us lose our opening game to Japan in Brighton!

In 2019 we were back on tour as the World Cup headed East to Japan for the first time. On this occasion I would be following our first three games… and the crew had grown! This was the inaugural BURTSandBORTZ adventure as Dyl, Zoneboy and I took 14 friends, and friends of friends, on an unbelievable adventure around Japan to follow the Springboks.

The inaugural BURTSandBORTZ adventure

We certainly couldn’t have asked for a bigger opening game than the All Blacks. Having played 98 times over the previous 98 years, with the All Blacks winning the first Test in Dunedin in 1921, they are our biggest rival. It took them 75 years to win a Test series in South Africa but over the past 25 years since rugby turned professional they’ve dominated our contests.

The Springboks hit rock bottom in 2017 with a humiliating 57-0 loss in Auckland before starting to turn things around in 2018 with a series win against the English at home and a rare as hen’s teeth win away in Wellington. Following a relatively successful end of year tour, we won a shortened Rugby Championship in 2019, our first in a decade, to arrive in Japan with confidence and belief.

After close on a year planning our debut BURTSandBORTZ adventure, it was surreal to finally touch down in Tokyo. Unfortunately my backpack wasn’t as lucky but having packed the onesie and flag in my hand luggage, I had everything I needed. With a karaoke venue conveniently situated across the road from the hostel, it was unsurprisingly a very large night with everyone together for the first time.

Thankfully we weren’t too croaky in the morning and the singing started again as soon as we left the hostel. We continued singing on the tube and though still early, the atmosphere arriving into Yokohama was phenomenal with green and gold (and black) jerseys everywhere you looked. With the Springboks enjoying a resurgent 2019, expectations were high with the head now joining the heart in believing we could beat the defending champions and go on to win our third Rugby World Cup.

We enjoyed a delicious lunch and a few craft beers at one of Yokohama’s many microbreweries before handing everyone their debut Japan RWC 2019 BURTSandBORTZ beanie. Whilst many of the group were friends, there were a few new faces and special friendships would grow as our unforgettable adventure unfolded. A few renditions of Shosholoza followed lunch and we left the microbrewery as we’d arrived – in full song.

We excitedly made our way towards the imposing 72,000 capacity Yokohama International Stadium, host of the 2002 Football World Cup final. It was a short walk from the train station and excitement reached fever pitch as the stadium finally came into view; it was surreal to be together in Japan to watch the Springboks in their opening World Cup game.

The phenomenal crew (with the sole kiwi and 2 other Saffas we picked up – those not in beanies!)

After many renditions of our three-song repertoire outside the stadium, we picked up a few beers and everyone went off to their seats. The Burts and I were sitting together and we all took a few moments to soak in where we were, and to reminisce on an unforgettable few years of travel and sports watching. Dyl and I met outside the M.A Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai back in 2011 following the Proteas in the Cricket World Cup; Zoneboy and I would meet 18 months later in Dublin on the Springbok’s end of year tour.

Special friends, special times

There were goose bumps as we belted out Nkosi Sikilela i’Afrika at the top of our lungs and complete silence as we watched the All Blacks perform their haka. Referee Jerome Garces then blew his whistle and we were off…

Facing the fearsome haka

For the first 20 minutes, we looked great and were dominating both possession and territory. A simple Handré Pollard penalty should have made it 6-0 after the first quarter, but when he hit the upright momentum swung massively and before we knew it the All Blacks had scored 17 unanswered points to lead 17 – 3 at the break.

The Boks came out strongly after the break and a piece of magic from Cheslin Kolbe led to South Africa’s opening try from Pieter-Steph Du Toit. With Pollard’s drop-goal in the 59th minute, the easiest three points in rugby as Naas would say, the Boks narrowed the gap to 4 and it was all to play for as we moved into the final quarter. Sadly that was as close as we would get with two late penalties from Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barritt ensuring the All Blacks ran out 23 – 13 winners.

We made our way back to Tokyo for a late dinner and while the Kirin and Sapporo beers certainly didn’t taste as delicious as they had earlier and we were left to rue what might had been had Pollard nailed that sitter, it was a fun night exploring the bustling Shinjuku area with its bright lights and many bars.

I only had the weekend in Tokyo so despite the long day, I was up early the following morning to explore a little of the city with Ryno, one of my oldest friends from university. We headed up the 450m tall Tokyo Skytree Tower for magnificent 360 views of the sprawling city, wandered around the beautiful Senso-ji temple and met Maccers for a divine lunch at a local restaurant.

Views from atop the Skytree Tower

We then met up with the rest of the group at the Kokugigan Stadium for our second sporting event – a sumo tournament! It was an incredibly special experience, and impeccable timing, to be in town for one of the city’s three annual Grand Sumo tournaments (there are only six in Japan each year). Sumo is Japan’s National Sport and watching its rituals and traditions felt like a window into Japanese culture. We also enjoyed a delicious bento box lunch and received a souvenir coffee mug, both included in our ticket price.

What a phenomenal experience

The day wasn’t done just yet as we made our way across town to don superhero / cartoon character costumes and climb in to go-karts to explore the city. We drove past many of the city’s landmarks, including the Shibuya crossing, and it was a uniquely fun way to see a city. Aside from losing our opener, it had certainly been one hellava weekend!

Too good 🙂
What a way to explore a city!

We left Tokyo the next morning and despite the best intentions of Typhoon Tapha, we climbed Mt Fuji before enjoying a night in Hakone and our first onsen experience, a traditional Japanese hot spring. We then headed to the Izu Peninsula for a relaxing few days eating well, diving, mountain biking and hiking. We also found a delightful outdoor onsen and this Japanese tradition was quickly becoming a firm tour favourite!

What a treat exploring & watching the Boks together

Our second game saw us in Toyota to play our neighbours, Namibia. The singing started before we’d even left nearby Nagoya, where we were staying, and continued until kick-off many hours later.  There was a fan zone leading from the station to the ground and we were able to pick up a few delicious Japanese craft beers for the walk.

Ryno, Maccers, Graemie

After our opening loss to the All Blacks, we couldn’t afford to lose any more games and the result was never in doubt as we scored 9 tries to run out comfortable 57-3 winners. Coach Rassie Erasmus rung the changes, using the game to give players a run and to try out a few new combinations with hooker Schalk Brits playing at #8 for the first time in his career.

The following morning Dyl and I collected our minivans and we were off on an epic road trip – first up was the foodie town of Takayama before heading to the Japanese Alps for a spectacular few days of hiking. After a night in Matsumoto to explore its beautiful 400-year old wooden castle, we made our way  via the Suntory whiskey distillery to the tiny town of Fukoroi for our 3rd game against Italy.

The drive was one I’ll never forget with Maccers doing an incredible job playing DJ and the minibus singing along to every classic South African song we could think of, including beauties from Leon Schuster, PJ Powers, Mango Groove and Johnny Clegg. It’s times like this that these sporting adventures are all about.

Fukoroi was certainly an interesting choice for a World Cup host city with very little accommodation available and not much to see in town. The fan zone, however, was great fun with live music and a few food and beer stalls.  Everyone was in fine voice as we enjoyed a few beers and then made our way to the beautiful stadium.

A few pre-match beers in the fan zone

The Boks looked hungry and determined and a repeat of the disaster in Florence was never on the cards. Whilst we made quite a few errors, it was a comfortable and convincing seven-try 49-3 win. For a few of the group, myself included, this was our final game, and we headed back to the fan zone to continue the celebrations.

The onesie has friends 🙂

It was a short drive back to Nagoya the following morning where we found a bar and settled in for the afternoon’s three games, including watching hosts Japan continue their dream World Cup with a win over Samoa. My adventure ended much the same way it started and after a very large evening in Nagoya, it was an early morning and a long flight home!

It had been an unbelievable two and a bit weeks following the boys and exploring Japan with a very special group of madly passionate friends. Some I knew from university days but hadn’t spent time like this together in decades, others I’d been on many unforgettable sporting trips with, and a few were folks I didn’t know when we landed in Tokyo but are now friends for life. I have no doubt there will be more sporting trips together in the future. If you’ve read this far, thank you all so much for making this adventure so incredibly special and the best fun – BOKKE!!!

I would watch the Springboks defy history and go on to win their third World Cup from back home in the UK and to think I was a small part of this is unreal… see you in France in 2023 to defend the title!

* Finally, a big thank you to everyone who shared their pictures.

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