Hanazono Rugby Stadium in the city of Higashiosaka reopened on Friday after the 20-month long upgrading works for the traditional home of Japanese rugby were completed. Hanazono was the last of the three stadia that required major upgrades to be ready for next year’s Rugby World Cup following the opening of the newly-built Kamaishi Usunomai Memorial Stadium in August and the renovated Kumagaya Rugby Stadium last week.
The stadium is widely regarded as one of Japan’s most respected rugby icons as the venue was originally opened in 1929 as the nation’s first-ever rugby-specific stadium. The then main stand’s symbolic roof was famously removed in 1943 as Japan was struggling to keep hold of metals during the fateful World War II. Towards the end of the war, even the pitch was turned into a farm.
Hanazono has also been the home of national high school championships since 1962 and is seen as Mecca for the nation’s high school rugby as well.
In Friday’s reopening, the Brave Blossoms, the Japanese national team, took on the World XV side which mainly consisted of the foreign players based in Japan and playing for the nation’s Top League clubs but still with the likes of Ma’a Nonu and Nehe Milner-Skudder among the world-class names in the starting lineup.
The home side trailed their much-fancied all-star opponents 7-24 at half time but, with the cheers of the 16,846 crowd sensing a repeat of the memorable comeback win over South Africa in the last World Cup, rallied back in the second half before eventually falling short and going down 28-31.
While the one-off international match at the reopened stadium itself marked a special occasion to celebrate, the refurbished Hanazono Rugby Museum in the main concourse also attracted rugby fans of old and new with popular technology like a VR experience proving to be a winner.
The real drama, however, waited after the final whistle was blown when the spectators from all four stands stormed to the main entrance, the only way out designated on the night. Unfortunately, the sole exit was located at the centre of the smaller East Stand, instead of the much larger Main Stand, and it quickly became obvious that the small concourse could not cope with the spectators from the two larger stands and side stands, and few even decided to evacuate to the upper mezzanine for the time being.
The bottleneck, in every sense of the word, was worsened by the local authorities who thought the situation could be disastrous but, rather strangely, decided to clear the area outside the vomitory first by blocking the gate to stop the flow of people exiting which led to all the crowds gathering in the main concourse with virtually nowhere to go. Anxiety and frustration gradually built up but the trapped crowd finally started to exit the stadium some 40 minutes after the match ended, and breathed a collective sigh of relief under the drizzle.
The match was designed to be a test event for next year’s big tournament, and it duly proved that the operation side of the stadium still leaves a lot to be desired, and things need to be sorted out sooner than later.
The updated capacity of the Hanazono Rugby Stadium is 26,544 and the venue will host Italy v Namibia (Pool B) on September 22, Argentina v Tonga (Pool C) on September 28, Gerogia v Fiji (Pool D) on October 3, and USA v Tonga (Pool C) on October 13.
Images: The Stadium Hub/Hisashi Arikawa & Naoki Tsukushi
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