Wednesday 23 October 2019

Alan Quinlan: 'The words of Jack McCaffrey really resonated with me. The power of sport is a truly important thing'

Uruguay's players celebrate with the crowd after winning over Fiji during the Rugby World Cup Pool D match in Kamaishi, northeastern Japan, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019. (Naoya Osato/Kyodo News via AP)
Uruguay's players celebrate with the crowd after winning over Fiji during the Rugby World Cup Pool D match in Kamaishi, northeastern Japan, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019. (Naoya Osato/Kyodo News via AP)
Alan Quinlan

Alan Quinlan

‘To start off by coming here to Crumlin and heading over to Temple Street now is one of the greatest honours I’ve ever had in my life.

'You walk in and see kids who are sick and families who are on a tough journey. And to see the joy that us playing football gives them is astounding. Some people say it puts things in perspective; football doesn’t really matter. No, it absolutely highlights how much sport matters and how special what we’ve managed to do is. To see the release and the satisfaction that some of these guys get from it is really emotional.'

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Jack McCaffrey, Dublin footballer

Standing 41 feet above sea level, atop the coastal defence wall, I stare out at the vastness and deep peace of the Pacific Ocean and find myself overcome with emotion.

On a stunning autumn day, fishing boats bob happily in the glistening bay as men and women make their living from the water, underlining the extraordinarily complex relationship the Kamaishi people have with this element – a source of life, health and real beauty, yet a cruel beast that can destroy everything it provides in the blink of an eye.

The seawalls feel oppressive despite their good intentions, part of a €10 billion project that built nearly 400km of protective structures along Japan’s north-east coast in the aftermath of the Great Tohoku earthquake and ensuing tsunami in March, 2011.

The earthquake, at 9.0 on the Richter scale, the biggest on record in Japan, directly and indirectly took 22,000 lives, more than 1,000 in the charming, rugby-mad town of Kamaishi, a place 35,000 people still call home.

Some see the overbearing seawalls as a necessary eyesore. Others have concerns around how they will affect tourism due to the stunning coastal views that they deny everyone.

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Walking around Kamaishi, it’s hard not to feel like a prisoner of the elements.

The view from the top of the seawall helps you visualise the utter terror of that spring afternoon eight-and-a-half years ago. It’s really difficult to digest.

Kamaishi is located between two peninsulas – there are a series of them along the coast – about 600km north of Tokyo and 300km north of the ghost town of Fukushima, where the tsunami triggered a nuclear disaster.

The peninsulas stretch out into the water like crab claws, creating a bay in between, with the centre of Kamaishi sitting right on the water, where the crustacean’s head would sit.

Once a mass of water the size of the 2011 tsunami – there were 18 waves in total, with the maximum wave height recorded at 33 metres – was headed for the town, there was only one winner.

Such was the strength of the tsunami that the breakwater in Kamaishi, the largest in the world at the time which came at a cost of €1.4 billion, crumbled as the heaving wall of water powered on relentlessly towards the coast. 

Behind the seawall is a flat plain of land that once housed the town centre.

The boats in front of the wall are the same kind of vessels that eight-and-a-half years earlier were tossed like rag dolls across the murky, floating scrapyard that minutes before had been a picturesque seaside town.

The devastation in Kamaishi was horrific – 1,064 people died or are still unaccounted for.

Most of the town’s people managed to evacuate to the nearby mountains in the 22 minutes between the 9.0 earthquake striking off the coast and arrival of the tsunami. But even some of those who survived the initial onslaught perished in the elements that followed.

Some ended up stranded on rooftops but were unable to be rescued in time, with the roads impassable due to the tonnes of rubble.

Others died from hypothermia in the hills, Mother Nature dealing such a cruel hand that March 11 day, sending snow in after the flood waters.

So many of us have become hardened against incidents of mass human tragedy, the clinical news stories rolling through the daily cycles. But to see and hear about the devastation first-hand, and to meet the storied faces of those who have lived through such horror, strikes you deep in the pit of your stomach.

In their times of great sorrow, the people of Kamaishi got strength and relief from their rugby team, a source of pride for the area going back decades.

The town was once known for steel, seafood and rugby; Nippon Steel Kamaishi RFC famously won seven successive national championships from 1978 to 1984. The steel industry has lost momentum, but rugby remains a key pillar in these parts, and it is intrinsically linked to the area’s recovery.

The Nippon Steelers became the Kamaishi Seawaves in 2001, and they remain the only community-owned club in Japan’s top two divisions.

Seawaves players, including Leinster’s Australian forward Scott Fardy, were urged to go back to training rather than continuing to assist with the recovery efforts in 2011, to give Kamaishi’s people a ray of light in haunting times of darkness that few of us, thankfully, could ever comprehend.

Controversially, amid the chaos of the recovery and with many residents still in temporary housing, it was decided to build a €30 million stadium in Kamaishi ahead of the Rugby World Cup. It’s hard to rationalise such a move.

Last Wednesday, it all made sense. I’m not sure I’ve been involved in a more emotional rugby occasion; the mixed feelings of grief and joy rolled into one fever-pitched game that was a fitting celebration at their 16,000-seater Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium, the smallest venue at the tournament.

I have a soft spot for Fijian people and Fijian rugby, but Wednesday was all about the underdogs – the underdogs of Kamaishi and the underdogs of Uruguay.

The South Americans thrived in the intense atmosphere, putting in one of the bravest team performances I have seen, embodying the attitude of the locals cheering them on. They refused to give up, refused to be beaten.

Not only that, the Uruguayans produced that brave performance on a site that became known for ‘the miracle of Kamaishi’, where the local high school and the Unosumai Elementary stood before they were crumpled by the tsunami.

School classes were finishing for the day on Friday, March 11, 2011 when the earthquake hit.

When the tsunami warnings went out the schoolchildren instinctively knew what to do, having had a practice drill the week previously, evacuating up the mountain with their teachers to safety.

As desperate as the devastation was, there is a feeling that it could have been a whole lot worse.

People travelled from all around the area to be a part of the occasion this week; a respectful celebration that honoured the dead in a typically Kamaishi way.

You could feel the pain in the stadium, but equally, you could feel the hope.

The tsunami swept away nearly everything in the town, everything but the resilient human spirit.

It is eerie and a little uncomfortable at first when you walk around these places knowing what once existed underneath your feet.

But as I spoke to many of the locals this week I began to understand what this World Cup, and on a larger scale what the sport of rugby, really means to this town.

More earthquakes and tsunamis are inevitable, that’s part of life in Kamaishi.

Words of advice are clearly marked around the town as a reminder: ‘Just run, run uphill’ and ‘We have learned that not everyone who evacuates survives, but everyone who does not evacuate dies’.

Managing their circumstances as best they can is the priority, while the game of rugby continues to ease the pain.

The words of Dublin footballer Jack McCaffrey really resonated with me this week; the talented wing-back speaking candidly while visiting sick children in Crumlin and Temple Street with his team-mates after Jim Gavin’s side won their fifth All-Ireland in a row.

Of course there are more important things in life than sport, yet sometimes I think we underestimate the depth of its power; how it can unite people, give them hope, relief and a distraction from their troubles.

This is what sport can be and for the most part, should be about.

This game has taken me to all sorts of places in my career as a player and commentator. Some cities, stadiums and games blur into each other.

However, I can say with utter confidence that my trip to Kamaishi, seeing the relief that rugby brings these people who have suffered so much, will stay with me for the rest of my life.

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