Diary of a Rugby Photographer in Japan – Part 2

David Gibson established Fotosport 25 years ago, which is a sports picture agency specialising in covering rugby union. He has covered in excess of 400 international test matches around the globe including the last last six Rugby World Cups and next year will see him photograph his seventh British and Irish Lions tour but he has never had the pleasure of covering rugby in Japan. Read Part 1 of his Diary here.

Just as I arrived in Amsterdam for my brief change over flight for Narita, I received an email from a long time Japanese photographer friend who has to have the greatest abbreviated name of anyone I know, his name is Hiroyuki, shortened to – Hiro! He had kindly sent me advance details of how to get from Tokyo’s Narita airport to the Scotland team’s training ground at Tatsumi.

Well, after reading it, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry as it confirmed my slightly apprehensive feelings that this could turn out to be a complicated tour to cover. His helpful itinerary included three train journeys, two different train station changes and a walk outside to get from one to another. As you can see from this map, the Tokyo rail network makes spaghetti junction look like Edinburgh’s straight line called Princess Street.


…and the Guinness Book of Records ’speedy Gonzalez award’ goes to…Narita Airport. If I had been sitting any further back than my KLM zoo class seat, it would have been on one of the toilet seats next to the back door but somehow from the moment of raising myself ready for the big sprint to catch Scotland’s first training session at 11am (the flight arrived at 8.40am), it only took a mind boggling 30 minutes from plane seat, to collection of baggage, through passport control, through customs control and then standing like Mr Bean with a bus ticket raised in front of my face with a feeling of content smugness that I might just get there on time.

In the end, with the help of a very obliging lady at the Narita information desk, I had decided to plonk for the all or bust option of just one 45 minute bus journey and a sprint to catch a train that would take me within a 15 minute walk of getting to the the training ground, hopefully on time. Everything in life is a learning curve and that was certainly the case for this part of my journey and as I looked back at the end of a long day of travelling, it was the original, trains, planes and automobiles trip. As I approached a taxi to get me to the training ground, a ghost seemed to spring open the passenger door for me. It then became a scene from ‘Driving Miss Daisy” as the taxi driver methodically pulled on a pair of white gloves before driving the final leg of my interesting and amusing long journey.

The Scotland team navigate the Nagoya streets.

As I waited to get into the Scotland team’s training ground, a liaison lady from the Japan union shuffled over and grappled with a padlock in an attempt to let me in. I had the sense that it really wasn’t necessary, as this paddock was in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by an eight foot grass hedge. The ex-serviceman guarding the team who according to a snapper colleague, was probably ‘packing a piece’ also seemed out of place. To be fair, it’s not unusual for the team to have security guards shadowing them during tours. I remember as far back as the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa when there were at least four high ranking SA policemen who were closely guarding the Scotland squad and who also ‘packed a piece’. As a small footnote, I think Doddie Weir still keeps in touch with one of them to this day.

As is often the case, training grounds in far flung corners of the rugby world are never really the glamorous places one might imagine and this one lived up to that anticlimax billing. It was pretty nondescript, with drab grey buildings and little Japanese writing in the background to help set the scene and so it was a struggle to capture an image of the lads which screamed out, ‘we’re in Tokyo’. Training images are also notorious as never being likely to win any awards for best picture of the year. In part, this is because there are often time limit constraints and pressures of only 15 minutes access imposed on the snappers by over zealous PR people keen to be seen showing off that they have the biggest clipboard in town and churning out the time honoured phrase of, ‘it’s more than my job’s worth’ or simply passing the buck on and saying such limitations are at the behest of the coaches.

Secondly, it is often the case that the snappers are given their 15 minutes to capture fame at the start of each session and the reality as we all know from our playing days, that’s when we simply touch our toes and stretch things and don’t show off all our tricks at the beginning of the party. So if I’m being honest, these images can often be as dull as dishwater but we simply try to make the best from what we have to work with. For all the mild gripes and slight challenges, it’s still a nice buzz to finally have arrived and to start doing what I am being paid to do – take pictures.

John Hardie - Scotland flanker stretches off at the start of the session. Scotland rugby tour of Japan, Tatsumi, Tokyo, Japan, Tuesday 14 June 2016. ***Please credit: David Gibson/Fotosport***

As we were told ‘it’s a wrap’ after our fifteen minutes and I started to pack my toys away, I was able to catch up for a chat with the gentle giant that is Richie Gray. He had just arrived after playing for his club Castres in a quarter final at the weekend against Montpellier and so he was sitting out the session in order to recover from the exertions of playing and the long flight out.FOTO11_R

I am universally known amongst my friends, the players and coaches, as Gibbo but for some reason, I have yet to find out why, Richie always greets me with the words, ‘Hi Gibbosun’. Maybe he’s a secret Japanese speaker and has yet to reveal his full talents. Actually, I think I am giving the big fella more credit than he deserves because when I asked him, “How’s your French coming along? You must be pretty proficient after three years in France?” he replied, with a laugh reminiscent of a naughty schoolboy, that he was “still hopeless” at speaking French. I guess when you are as good as he is at playing rugby, it doesn’t matter a jot if you can or can not speak the lingo because you do all your talking on the field!

It was then a taxi ride back to the team hotel at the rather plush ANA Intercontinental Hotel in Tokyo ahead of an early afternoon press conference. I suggested to one of my fellow photographers that we should sit in the hotel restaurant and have a cuppa whilst editing our training gems and this time the laugh was on me. He exclaimed “Have you seen the prices in the menu!?” and I sheepishly said, “No, why?” and he grinned as he said, “At £12 for a pot of green tea, I don’t think so!”. I can just imagine a few of the players pulling the old trick first perfected by Lions prop Charlie Faulkner and sticking the telephone calls and restaurant tabs on other players room numbers.

By the end of the day, my energy levels were surviving on thin air and adrenaline from an eventful, yet very enjoyable first day on tour. My final act was to pick a fight with jet lag…the next morning I woke up believing I had won, time will tell.

Stay Tuned For Part 3 Coming Soon.

Any Question for David? Ask in the comments!

All photos used in the post are taken by David Gibson

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