Alumni, Club Corner

Is Rugby Related to Sumo?

Michael Rush, Contributor

Michael Rush (MBA ’72) recounts the early history of HBS rugby and the alumni’s recent “Japan Trek” for the World Rugby Cup.

The HBS rugby tradition was founded in 1963 through the organization of an intrepid Scot, Jim Johnstone (MBA ’65). Various tours to the Bahamas and other island venues during the 1970s instilled an interest in travel and rugby that started formally in 1978 as the HBS Old Boys Rugby Club. There have been 40 annual tours culminating with the most recent World Cup tour in Japan in September. From Barcelona to Vancouver to Argentina to New Zealand, the HBS Old Boys have stretched across the globe.

The nucleus of the current Old Boys has been the classes from the 1970s and 1980s, and each year the rules are eased a bit to allow the “Old” Old Boys to keep playing. The tours have also been family affairs, with spouses, relatives, and friends enjoying the organized matches and culture found in over 25 different country tours.

The inscrutable Orient had not been toured as the length of travel and the lack of contacts in the area made it difficult to create the matches necessary to meet the local people and also enjoy their culture. John O’Donnell (MBA ’77), a former Sony Corporation executive, and his wife Masumi, who is Japanese, offered to solve this problem by volunteering to lead a tour during the World Rugby Cup in Japan, scheduled from September through October 2019. Matches were set up in Tokyo with Keio University and in Kyoto with Doshisha University, featuring their “Old Boys” and their competitive rivalry in rugby with each other, which dates to the late 1800s. They were the first two private schools to play rugby in Japan, and their educational reputation has them regarded as “Ivy League” competitors.

The matches were a tour highlight as both sides played very well, and the weather was sunny—even a bit hot at 93 degrees in Kyoto. HBS tied Keio 20-20 and lost to Doshisha 25-20 in very competitive matches where the color of your rugby shorts dictated whether you could be tackled, held, or touched in order to give up the ball. But in the heat of manly contest, tackling often became the norm for all players. The after-match parties featured the usual rugby camaraderie of local food, potent drink, and competitive singing. The Japanese were especially exultant in their toasts to HBS (kanpai!), as Japan itself was in a frenzy over the four victories of their national team in winning its group rugby pool.

The HBS Old Boys toured shrines (there is even a specific shrine to the “god of rugby”) and lush gardens; hiked mountains (although a Fuji ascent was impossible due to high winds); and enjoyed geisha entertainment, fast trains (shinkansen), luxury buses, and two great hotels, especially the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo—and even a sumo tournament. There the big boys tried to belt each other out of a small ring. Could this have been the start of rugby in Japan … without the ball? USA vs. England and Ireland vs. Scotland were avidly watched at the stadia by the Old Boys, and numerous nights in the Ginza, shopping, and even a Pikachu museum kept everyone busy. The sit-down dinners acquainted everyone with the “under the sea” delicacies of the Japanese table. The fish stared back at you when we even had to cook one meal at the table with Kobe beef, miso soup, fish and various vegetables, crudités, and no menu nor guidelines available.

John and Masumi’s tour oversight was tightly organized, and exact time schedules were obeyed—or you were left behind. Without their presence, and precise daily schedules, the tour would have disintegrated into “spur of the moment” activity. Given Japan’s social order and cultural protocol, that would have been a disaster! We owe John and Masumi our fervent thanks and gratitude for such a rugby highlight over our 40 years.

And ponder this:

Where else would pedestrians wait for the proper light to cross the street? And let you cross first …

Could toilets with warm seats and dancing water sprays be a hit in the USA? Highlight of the day …

How long would it take NYC to suffocate with minimal trash bins as in Tokyo? A New York minute …

Finally, will the REAL Buddha please stand up!

Michael Rush (MBA ’72) recently retired after 15 years of full-time teaching at Boston College. After HBS, Mike was involved in money management with the Boston Company and was Chief Financial Officer & Chief Operating Officer of Freddie Mac. He worked on Wall Street as a Managing Director at Shearson Lehman Brothers in mortgage finance, was CEO of a billion-dollar savings bank in Philadelphia, and built a movie-theatre business with several other partners that was sold to Cablevision in 2001. He then began teaching corporate finance and capital markets. Attending HBS in the days before Shad and basketball courts, he found rugby to be a highlight of his two years on campus. Mike is still involved with HBS Rugby as President of the HBS Old Boys Rugby Club.


November 10, 2019
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