On the eve of the first Rugby World Cup in Japan, BEN STANLEY dives into the untold story of one of the Cherry Blossoms' greatest ever upsets, over the Junior All Blacks, in Wellington, in 1968.
By the time the second half began, they were exhausted. When it was all over, fifteen men in black could barely walk off Athletic Park. Though smaller and lighter across the board, the Japanese had run them ragged that afternoon, especially the forwards. Well-organised at the breakdown, their pack punched it in close and went again, and again, and again.
With the New Zealand loosies virtually out on their feet, two tries came down the blindside. Rolling mauls would last up to forty yards (36 metres), while precision passing linked their mobile pack to star winger Yoshihiro Sakata, who'd score four tries, in mere moments. "It was spectacular," Manawatu centre Mick O'Callaghan recalls, 51 years later.
"They passed really well. They would shuttle pass, similar to the French. Flip, flip, flip – the ball would go from the halfback out to the wing in less than three seconds. They'd sometimes outflank us just by doing that well."
When the final whistle blew on June 3, 1968, Japan hadn't just sealed a 23-19 victory over the Junior All Blacks in Wellington.
They had claimed their first significant international rugby scalp; a feat that is still recognised and celebrated as such in Japanese rugby. For more than five decades, the full story of how a group of largely Japanese university students coached by a professor was able to overcome the NZ team that included 11 future All Blacks, including 20-test lock Peter 'Pole' Whiting, iconic first-five Bob Burgess and future national coach Laurie Mains, has never been told.
The great upset was played in an era where the New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU) ruled with an iron fist, and coaches and tactics were never criticised in public. Yet for the Kiwis involved in the match, the sting of the defeat, what led to it, and how it impacted their careers has lingered.
"As I got older and a bit longer into rugby, [I] didn't want to lose," flanker Bevan Holmes, of Northland, says. "If you did come off the field losing by a point or so, you were pissed off about the whole thing.
"Now, when I look back on the record, I'm bloody riled that we didn't win that game. Why did we lose it when you look at the players, and who prepared us for that game?"
Though there is evidence of British soldiers and sailors playing rugby in the 1860s, it wasn't until the establishment of a club at Tokyo's Keio University in 1899 that the game really gained a beachhead in Japan.
By the '30s, there were around 1500 clubs nationwide and Japan hosted tours from a range of international sides, including a NZ Universities team who they held to a 9-9 draw in Osaka, in 1936.
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Though large corporates helped rebuild the sport following World War II, its strength still lay in a varsity club network that produced Shigeru 'Shiggy' Konno, a UK-educated administrator, and Onishi Tetsunosuke, a Waseda University professor who would coach the national team between 1966 and 1971.
Under the leadership of Konno, who had trained to be a kamikaze pilot in the last months of the war, Japan began hosting tours from increasingly competitive teams - including a 1958 Junior All Blacks side that included future legends Colin Meads, Wilson Whineray and Kel Tremain.
"Their standard was very good," O'Callaghan, now a 73-year-old biotech executive living near Boston, says. The former vet played against Japan in 1966 and 1970 with NZ Universities, and scored seven tries against them, in three matches, on their '68 tour to New Zealand.
"They weren't big enough, that was their problem. They didn't have big enough forwards, but for 60 minutes, they were often competitive and ahead of us sometimes, but they would run out of steam in the last  minutes of the game."
The first Japanese side to visit New Zealand was Yawata Steel in 1962, but the Cherry Blossoms' ten-match schedule in 1968 marked the first time the national side had toured. While the bulk of the side were students, Japan featured some real talent in the way of star winger Sakata, industrious flanker Motonari Ishida and a courageous fullback named Masaharu Mantini. With Konno serving as team manager, Tetsunosuke tweaked their gameplan to make the most of their comparatively smaller size. Though still rare in the late 60s, short lineouts were thrown in by the hooker while "scrum physics" was used to compete up front.
"They adopted what I would call a scientific approach to the scrum, with the angles they packed," Poverty Bay hooker Grant Allen, who played against Japan two days before the Junior All Blacks, says.
"They weren't big guys, but we had a pretty big forward pack ... and we couldn't nudge them around. We pushed them a wee bit, but not as much as I would have expected to when we ran out onto the field with them."
After losing their first four games, they got into the groove with three straight wins, against West Coast (18-5), Auckland University (14-6) and Poverty Bay (23-15), before the tour's biggest game in Wellington, on Queen's Birthday Monday.
With Sir Fred Allen's star-studded All Blacks touring Australia, a talented Junior All Blacks lineup was assembled to meet the visitors. All Black selector Ivan Vodanovich was charged with coaching and preparing a group that featured some of the most promising names in New Zealand provincial rugby.
Led by Taranaki prop Ash Gardiner, the pack included the likes of Taranaki lock Ian 'Legs' Eliason, Southland lock Gerry Dermody (the uncle of future All Black prop Clarke) and Wairarapa-Bush flanker Ian Turley.
All three would go on to play more than 100 matches for the provinces. Whiting would start off the bench. Wellington halfback Ian 'Nectar' Stevens fed a backline that included talented Hawke's Bay first-five John Dougan, Wellington winger Owen 'Noddy' Stephens, Burgess, Mains and O'Callaghan. The expectation from within the playing group, from the coaches, the NZRFU and the rugby public was that the Juniors would be able to deal to the touring minnows, handily.
The day before the game, Vodanovich decided he'd take the Juniors on a two and a half-hour 'sprints and laps' training session at Athletic Park. More than fifty years later, players still complain about its brutality. "He ran the guts out of us," hooker Dave Pescini, of Otago, says.
"I remember that Ivan was running the forwards and, man, he ran us around that bloody field so many times," Holmes, also 73 and retired in Waipu, says. He recalled seeing Auckland prop Bill Japeth nearly collapse from exhaustion. "I think, looking retrospectively, he bloody killed us." O'Callaghan feigned an ankle injury with 30 minutes remaining, when he could see what was happening.
The Christchurch-born vet changed his boots and delayed getting back into the fold - but remains rancorous about what the man known as 'Ivan The Terrible' did.
"It was ridiculous – it was absolutely stupid," he says.
"He ground the forwards into the ground – this is Ivan Vodanovich. There were guys there who were really good players and they came off that field and looked as if they were dead. It was one of the worst examples of coaching I've ever seen. It was horrific. It just went against all possible principles of good management of players, particularly young players."
Though exhausted, the Juniors pushed themselves as hard as they could go. It was an open secret that Vodanovich was likely to follow Sir Fred as the All Blacks coach, and did so after 'The Needle' stood down at the end of the '68 season. Impressing him could deliver a test jumper. The following afternoon, Queen's Birthday Monday, saw Athletic Park packed with around 25,000 fans. Holmes remembers standing alongside the Japanese, who were awarded test caps for the match, in the tunnel before - and noticed a light sweat on their brows.
"They must have wanted to win that game so much," Holmes says. "They came down that tunnel and they were sweating. That's what I remember most about the game."
The Juniors led 8-0 early on thanks to a penalty and converted try to O'Callaghan, before Japanese first-five Tsutomu Katsuraguchi and Sakata both scored tries to make it 8-6. The tourists then hit the front after 17 minutes when Mains fumbled a kick and Sakata scooped up the ball to score. Another to Sakata and centre Akira Yokoi saw the Japanese take a 17-11 lead at halftime. "They were advancing all the time," O'Callaghan says.
"They would do a lot of plays close around the scrum, around the mauls, and our loose forwards just couldn't get a way in quick enough to take them down.
"It wasn't like how they do it now when everyone's standing out – the 'eight' was together in those days. They played a really good eight-man game up front and they were getting the ball to their wingers quickly. We were being pushed backwards on defence. A back would be caught up in a maul and then, all of a sudden, it was out to the winger."
O'Callaghan scored a converted try after 56 minutes to narrow the score to 17-16, but as the game went on, it became apparent that it was Japan's for the taking. After 65 minutes, winger Tadayuki Ito scored, followed by Sakata's fourth five minutes later to give the visitors a 23-16 lead.
Wellington winger Stephens scored a late try from a lineout, but it would not be enough. Using modern tallies for tries and penalties, Japan would have won 35-25 if played today.
"They deservedly beat the Junior All Blacks that day," O'Callaghan, a three-test winger later in 1968, who never played internationally again due to his anti-apartheid stance, says.
"They played really, really well and we played really tiredly."
The fallout was swift and brutal to the New Zealand players. Renowned Otago Daily Times cartoonist Sid Scales, a former RNZAF Catalina pilot who'd been a Japanese POW for three years, commemorated the match with an illustration that portrayed two racially-caricatured Japanese rugby players climbing an 'All Black Mountain'.
"There was a lot of disappointment afterwards," O'Callaghan says. "I remember the press pointing a few fingers, [but] they never pointed them at the coaches," he said, with a laugh, "which was a pity because I think some of the players didn't deserve what came their way."
Pescini, who'd play 81 games for Otago but never reach higher honours, recalls Vodanovich being furious with the team afterwards, even disallowing them to keep their playing jerseys as was the custom. "We had to flog it," Pescini, now 73 and retired in Picton, recalls. "They weren't too happy." His granddaughter has the jersey now.
Participation in the upset stuck to many of the New Zealanders. Whiting, Mains, Burgess, Stephens (who also played for the Wallabies and Parramatta Eels), Dougan, Stevens, Gardiner and O'Callaghan would all play test rugby, while Northland winger Dennis Panther (as a reserve), Eliason and Holmes would become uncapped All Blacks. Holmes holds the record for most games - 31 - without playing a test for New Zealand.
Vodanovich's tenure as All Blacks coach was a disaster. Of his ten tests in charge between 1969 and 1971, New Zealand won only four, drew one and infamously lost the 1971 series against the touring British & Irish Lions. A future NZRFU councillor and life member, Vodanovich died in 1995, aged 65.
The 1968 Japanese side are remembered as fantastic tourists who were wildly popular wherever they played, especially Sakata, who studied at Canterbury University, stayed with O'Callaghan's mum and played for the province the following year. "He became a bit of a household name in New Zealand," Allen recalls.
Inducted into the Rugby Hall of Fame as its first, and only, Japanese member, Sakata, now 76, is recognised as the nation's finest player. He'd play 16 tests in all for Japan, including their narrow 6-3 loss to England in Tokyo in 1971.
Tetsunosuke, who died three weeks after Vodanovich, is still remembered as one of Japan's great rugby minds. The Cherry Blossoms have only returned to New Zealand once, in 1974. They won five of their ten matches, including against Counties Manukau, Taranaki and NZ Universities, but were thrashed in their rematch with the Junior All Blacks at Eden Park, 55-31.
Their next victory over a top tier rugby nation wouldn't come again until 1989, when they beat a Scotland XV in Tokyo.
Konno went on to chair the Japanese Rugby Union between 1972 and 1994, served as their representative to the IRB in the late 90s and was awarded an OBE by the Queen for services to rugby.
Though he died - in 2007 - long before they won the bidding for it, the fact that the Rugby World Cup will be played in Japan over the next seven weeks is a testament to his guidance.
"By defeating the Junior All Blacks," Konno said, years before, "we now have a foothold on the ladder of world competition."
The Cherry Blossoms might not make the final in Yokohama in November 2, but on a Monday afternoon at Athletic Park they did maybe something even better; beat fifteen men dressed in black.
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