Tsunami-hit Kamaishi treated to Rugby World Cup thriller

Kamaishi (Japan) (AFP) –


Almost wiped off the map by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, the small, rugby-mad Japanese town of Kamaishi had something to cheer on Wednesday as it hosted a thrilling Rugby World Cup upset.

Famous for mining, fishing and rugby, the coastal town in north-eastern Japan -- which often draws parallels with Wales -- lost more than 1,000 people in the tsunami that washed away the majority of its infrastructure.

But the town of just 34,000 witnessed a pulsating Pool D game when unfancied Uruguay stunned Fiji 30-27 at the 16,000-seat, purpose-built Kamaishi Recovery Memorial stadium, which sits on the ruins of a school destroyed in the disaster.

The school was the scene for what became known as the "miracle of Kamaishi", as more than 400 children aged from six to 15 managed to escape the onrushing waves, sprinting some two kilometres (more than a mile) up into the mountains.

The game, one of two Rugby World Cup fixtures in Kamaishi, was highly symbolic for the town as it still struggles to recover from the 2011 tragedy.

"I feel like I'm dreaming that the World Cup is being held here eight-and-a-half years later," Kamaishi resident Masahiro Mikami told AFP. "I'm very happy."

The stadium has caused some controversy in the town as several residents are still living in temporary accommodation. But Sola Suga, from Kamaishi, said it was part of a wider rebuilding effort.

"Houses are rebuilt step-by-step, and this great stadium was built, then the World Cup is now being held, that's very meaningful," Suga told AFP.

"I'm happy that the world is watching."

Rugby is part of Kamaishi's DNA. The town's club, Nippon Steel Kamaishi RFC, swept all before them in the early 1980s, winning seven consecutive national titles and earning the nickname "the Northern Iron Men".

And the game had a role in Kamaishi's recovery -- the team, now called the Kamaishi Seawaves, played a match just two weeks after the disaster to lift spirits.

World Rugby chief Bill Beaumont hailed a "very special day" for the game and the people of Kamaishi.

"When deciding upon host cities for Japan 2019, it was clear that Kamaishi was a place with rugby at its heart, with a great rugby history and a passionate local fanbase," said Beaumont.

There were moving scenes before kick-off as a moment's silence honoured the victims, with several children in the crowd removing their caps and bowing their heads silently in prayer.

- 'Whole area was devastated' -

Fiji's captain Dominiko Waqaniburotu, who led his players in a song of compassion for the victims of Kamaishi, described the experience as "humbling" and "unique".

And coach John McKee said it was an emotional time for him as he had visited the site when it was little more than a wasteland.

"Rugby is bigger than the game," said McKee.

Kamaishi residents stress that they received a lot of support from the rugby community around the world when they were picking up the pieces and that they wanted to repay this by warmly welcoming fans to the game.

New Zealander Pita Alatini, now assistant coach of Tonga, was in Kamaishi at the time of the magnitude-9.0 quake that sparked the deadly tsunami.

"I hadn't seen people run to the evacuation area before, but they did that day," he said.

One of the players at the club lost his parents, said Alatini, who like many foreign players stayed behind in Kamaishi to help with the recovery efforts.

After the Fiji-Uruguay match, the stadium will also host Namibia against Canada on October 13.

"For them to be staging two games means so much," said Alatini, adding that he was "so jealous" of the teams that got to play there.

"I'm so happy for the people. They have obviously been through an awful lot and they are a rugby-mad town."