Former Springbok and stormers player Gio Aplon described his Japanese experience as the cultural highlight of his career. Photo: Reuters/Andrew Boyers
Former Springbok and stormers player Gio Aplon described his Japanese experience as the cultural highlight of his career. Photo: Reuters/Andrew Boyers
Western Province stalwart Scarra Ntubeni, Peter Ziegler, Dillyn Leyds, Steven Haldane pictured at the Cape Times RWC breakfast. Photo: Armand Hough/African News Agency (ANA)
Western Province stalwart Scarra Ntubeni, Peter Ziegler, Dillyn Leyds, Steven Haldane pictured at the Cape Times RWC breakfast. Photo: Armand Hough/African News Agency (ANA)

CAPE TOWN – Japanese-based former Springbok Gio Aplon told the audience at the Cape Times Rugby World Cup 2019 breakfast earlier this week that the tournament would be like no other in the history of professional rugby.

The Cape Times, in partnership with Japan’s Consul General Yasushi Naito, showcased the strong business partnerships that exist between South Africa and Japan in an exclusive morning gathering at Granger Bay.

Guests were treated to the rugby insights from 1995 World Cup winners Chester Williams and James Dalton, Stormers duo Dillyn Leyds and Scarra Ntubeni, Cape Times rugby writer Wynona Louw, and Aplon, who plays for Japan’s Toyota Verblitz. The 2007 World Cup-winning coach Jake White is the current coach of Toyota Verblitz.

Aplon, who played 150 times for the Stormers and Western Province, also made 17 Test appearances for the Springboks, 62 for French club Grenoble and in the last two years has played 24 matches in Japan.

Gio Aplon has been playing rugby in Japan for the past two years. Photo: Reuters/Nigel Marple
Gio Aplon has been playing rugby in Japan for the past two years. Photo: Reuters/Nigel Marple

He described his Japanese experience as the cultural highlight of his career and echoed Consul General Naito’s words of just how welcome any visitor would be made to feel in Japan.

“Just don’t arrive late for your train, because it doesn’t wait,” joked Aplon. “If the timetable says it leaves at 12.22, it leaves at 12.22.”

He said the work ethic of the Japanese people was unmatched and their hospitality was also unrivalled in how they embraced foreigners.

“If you go to Japan, I can guarantee you that you won’t necessarily want to leave. I’ll be coming back to South Africa when my contract ends, but it will be with a heavy heart because of the incredible experience over the last two years.”

Former Springbok hooker James Dalton, Mark Keohane and Michael Barr pictured at the Cape Times RWC breakfast. Photo: Armand Hough/African News Agency (ANA)
Former Springbok hooker James Dalton, Mark Keohane and Michael Barr pictured at the Cape Times RWC breakfast. Photo: Armand Hough/African News Agency (ANA)

Former Springbok hooker Dalton also felt that the Japanese World Cup would be the most tightly contested in the history of the game, because none of the top six rugby nations could claim a home advantage.

Defending champions the All Blacks would have great support because AIG is the team’s sponsor. The All Blacks would start as the local supporter’s “other team”, but to borrow from Aplon, if the Springboks beat the All Blacks on September 21, then the Springboks would become that second favourite team.

“One thing about the Japanese is they love a winner,” said Aplon.

Everyone in Japan also knows the Springboks because of the history- making defeat against Japan at the 2015 World Cup.

The Springboks, in Japanese rugby circles, have always commanded respect as one of the best rugby nations. The Japanese World Cup victory, however, took the Springboks’ name into the public consciousness, even if it wasn’t the way in which South Africa intended to make an impact.

Japan Consul-General Yasushi Naito of the Embassy of Japan in Pretoria speaking at The Cape Times RWC breakfast event. Photo: Armand Hough/African News Agency (ANA)

Consul General Naito, who has been in South Africa for the past 20 years, promised South African visitors that they were in for a cultural and sporting treat. South Africa was a popular country to Japanese business people and also the public. Our country was one he said Japanese people loved to visit, and he remained hopeful those many South Africans who had applied for visas to the World Cup would return to South Africa enriched because of the Japanese experience.

“If you can’t make it to the World Cup, remember we also have the 2020 Summer Olympics next year,” he said.

Japan’s ability to host a world-class sporting event is not in question and Aplon said the patriotic Japanese public’s unity in all things Japanese would guarantee the success of the event.

The 1995 World Cup winners Dalton and Williams, who is the coach of the University of Western Cape, spoke about the experience of playing in a World Cup and also the advantages of playing at home.

Both said Japan had improved immeasurably and had benefited from the strong contingent of foreign players who had been immersed into the Japanese rugby culture over the past two decades.

Invited guests and rugby celebrities pictured at the Cape Times RWC breakfast. Photo: Armand Hough/African News Agency (ANA)
Invited guests and rugby celebrities pictured at the Cape Times RWC breakfast. Photo: Armand Hough/African News Agency (ANA)

Ironically, South African-born Pieter “Lappies” Labuschagne captained Japan on his international debut last weekend. The Japanese World Cup squad is also expected to include a few more Japanese-based South African players.

Consul General Naito’s dream final would be Japan versus the Springboks, although the panellists felt that the tournament’s Pool B opening game between the Springboks and All Blacks could be the precursor to the final.

And all agreed that when that happens, the stars are aligned for the result to be similar to the epic 100-minute 1995 final, when South Africa triumphed against all odds.

@mark_keohane