Meet Japan’s humble new emperors
Uruguay’s part-timers cause stir in Kumagaya after shock Fiji victory, reports Kate Rowan
Kumagaya is known as “Japan’s rugby town” and the fleet of local taxi drivers are mainly men in their sixties clad in Brave Blossoms jerseys to mark the World Cup. On the drive to one of Japan’s most exclusive getaways, the driver seems almost boyish in his excitement. “I saw the Emperor at the Heritage Resort once and now I want to see them!”
Upon arrival at the sprawling complex, the driver jumps out and runs into reception before he can be paid. Then a group of burly young men in blue polo shirts pass by and the driver gives the deepest of bows – the sort of bow reserved in Japanese etiquette only for the most important or highest ranking.
This is how life changes when you have caused the biggest stir of the World Cup so far, and Uruguay’s players are making the most of it. The taxi driver, after declaring: “You stay where the Emperor stay, you win the rugby match,” sprints out of the door. The Heritage Resort has long been a favourite of the Japanese Imperial family, and Margaret Thatcher stayed there in the 1980s while serving as Prime Minister.
For Uruguay, despite their lowly world ranking and partly amateur squad, it seems appropriate that they have chosen these lofty surrounds after their defeat of Fiji.
Yet, the reality of their lives away from this bubble soon becomes clear. Uruguay were the only amateur side in the 2015 World Cup. Now there are only 15 players on centralised contracts, while the majority have day jobs, including captain and flanker Juan Gaminara, who is an accountant. He chuckles: “I am glad we won because it means I am on television and my colleagues remember what I look like.”
Professional status has not brought riches. “It is not like we are making one million dollars,” Gaminara says, “but it means we can train regularly as professionals with the guys on contracts. A lot of our squad balance international rugby with jobs.”
One such player is prop Diego Arbelo, named on the bench for tomorrow’s crunch tie with Georgia who, when he is not on the rugby field, is driving an Uber in Montevideo. Scrum-half Santiago Arata is proud to announce that he is a trainee physiotherapist, before Gaminara chips in with: “You aren’t the best student.”
It is easy to sense the giddy excitement of a group of players who had come into the tournament with so little expectation. All beam at the mention of increased media attention back home and seem somewhat star-struck by how Uruguay’s most famous sporting son, Barcelona star Luis Suarez, had tweeted his congratulations. Rather than look down on football, the bulk of the rugby team are avid fans who enjoy a kickabout.
With only 4,000 registered rugby players in a population of just over 3.4 million, this is seen as rugby’s golden chance to make waves beyond the traditional rugby heartlands of Montevideo, Punta del Este and Paysandu, continuing to break down its image as a private school sport.
As befits their elevated status, Gaminara and his men occasionally lapse into media-trained mode – “We really made an impact with the win but we now must step away from that and try and focus on a win against Georgia” – but such is the way of Los Teros (named after the national bird, the southern lapwing) that it does not take long for the laughter to return and it is the topic of family which unites this band of brothers.
Much had been made in the aftermath of the miracle of Kamaishi of the impact of the Ormaecheas, known as the first family of Uruguayan rugby.
Diego Ormaechea, who will become the first Uruguayan to be inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame later this year, scored his country’s first World Cup try in a victory over Spain in 1999 and coached Uruguay to a win over Georgia in 2003. His sons Juan Diego and Agustin are replacements tomorrow.
While Gaminara credits the Ormaecheas’ contribution to Uruguayan rugby, he points out that his own father played for Los Teros Under-20s, while centre Juan Manuel Cat butts in: “My father got three senior caps.” Gaminara concludes: “Rugby is passed down father to son in Uruguay and I can’t get my dad to shut up about it, especially now.”
There will be plenty more willing to hold forth on Uruguay if they can follow up their Fiji triumph by defeating Georgia tomorrow.