Two days out from opening night, Tokyo Stadium was buzzing with workers fixing the trimmings, hanging banners from the gantries, stacking crates of beer behind the bars, peeling back the plastic wrapping from the deep-pile carpets in the VIP suites. Wandering around among them was a crocodile of 70 merry volunteers getting their first look at the place, and their final instructions for what to do on Friday night. World Rugby has recruited 13,000 volunteers altogether. For the next six weeks they will be trying to shepherd half-a-million “tired and emotional” rugby fans through Tokyo, Shinjuku, Shibuya and all the other rail stations on their way to and from the grounds.
Around two-thirds of the volunteers speak English, the rest, says World Rugby’s director of workforce Deb Jones, have been taught that they can get by with a smile and a high-five. They are called Team No-Side which, Jones says, is an interesting little story in itself. Way back in the day referees would call “no-side” at the end of the match, when neither team had the ball. It’s fallen out of use in England, but it’s stuck in Japan, where it has grown into an idiom that means everyone should put aside their differences and get together to share a drink at the end of the game, the idea being that there’s “no side” for winners or losers.
Google it, and you’ll find a blog post from the former president of the Sumitomo Electric company saying that he hopes that since the English invented rugby we will all remember to demonstrate the spirit of “no-side” by “respecting each other without distinguishing between friends and foes” after the Brexit referendum in 2016. Which, three years later, is probably a topic best glossed over with one of those uncomprehending smiles. “I was a bit unsure about it when they told me they wanted to call it Team No-Side,” Jones says, “but then they explained the origins of it, and it started to make sense.”
Evans was charged with recruiting and training the volunteers. She did a similar job back in her home country of New Zealand for the 2011 tournament. World Rugby asked her to do it again because she has also worked as a Japanese translator. Even so, the differences between doing the job here and doing it there took some getting used to. There were the little things, like the way the Japanese preferred not to conduct one-on-one sessions with the applicants, but held group interviews instead. And the big ones, like the fact that 50% of those selected have never seen a game of rugby before.
Chit-chatting with some of the volunteers who were taking the tour around the stadium, I met one in a new British & Irish Lions jersey, who told me that he got into rugby late, when he was 28, because his boss asked him if he wanted to come and play for his club and the shrewd move was clearly to give an enthusiastic “yes”. Another had signed up because she happened to be on holiday in England during the 2015 tournament and enjoyed the atmosphere so much that she decided to get involved in this time around. Neither of them had ever been to a live game before.
The people who had seen matches all seemed to have done it when they were overseas. There was Urara Murasawa, 19, who spent a year on a school exchange in New Zealand. “I’ve loved rugby ever since,” she said. All her friends do, too. “They’re jealous because I’m going to get to see so many games.” And Akiko Sato, 43, who took her 12-year-old son to Auckland last August to watch the All Blacks stuff Australia 36-0 at Eden Park. She had never heard of rugby until he started playing for his local club when he was nine. Now she is scheduling her family holidays around New Zealand’s Test matches. Now she is volunteering here, her boy has the coolest mum among his circle of friends.
One volunteer admitted only signing up because of next year’s Olympics and this is a dress rehearsal for repeating the role then. Another had no desire to get involved in the Games because they thought it was tainted by the suicide of one of the construction workers in 2017.
What they all seemed to agree on, though, was that they wanted to be part of the World Cup so they could help open Japan up to other cultures. “I really want to do something for Japan, to help make connections between Japanese people and the rest of the world,” Murasawa said, “I’ve been abroad and I’ve seen different countries and cultures, and I love Japan and I just want to marry it all up.” Her enthusiasm was infectious. We swapped a high five.