TOKYO, Japan - Since becoming a varsity sport in 2014, the rugby program at Saint Ignatius High School has become nationally recognized and internationally. The rugby team has had matches in Ireland, France and South Africa and now can add Japan to that list as from April 5 to April 15, the Wildcats competed in the Land of the Rising Sun. Japan became the fourth continent that the Rugby program has played on, with the other three being North America, Europe and Africa.
With these trips, there is more to it than just the game; it allows for an opportunity for students to take in and learn a new culture outside their everyday living in Cleveland, Ohio. With the Spring Tour to Japan, the Cats would match up against the country's top high school rugby teams. Over the 10-day tour, the Saint Ignatius community visited Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe and Nakatsugawa. The Wildcats would go 1-2 on the trip, pouring all they had against Japan's best.
The team began to touch down in Japan on April 6, 2023, after 14+ hour flights from Northeast Ohio. Head Rugby Coach Dan Arbeznik '00 and his wife Ellen were at Haneda Airport welcoming the student-athletes, coaches and families entering the country. Everyone settled into their hotel in Tokyo for a team meal before heading to bed for the first official day in Japan.
On April 7, the team came together to tour what the great city of Tokyo has to offer, first by visiting the Imperial Palace and Gardens. The team would then head over to Chiyoda City, a ward located in Tokyo with shops and restaurants. To complete day one of touring, the team would visit Asakusa, home to Sensoji, a Buddhist temple built in the seventh century.
The following day was match day, the first of three for the Rugby Cats as they would take on Keio Senior High, a rugby powerhouse in Japan. The coaches and players were excited to match up against the Japanese and learn how they approach the game of rugby.
"The impression you guys make today will last for a long time," Arbeznik said before the Wildcats took on Keio. "Communicate with each other, run hard and play hard and leave an impression as you represent your school and country."
The first match was challenging for the Wildcats, with many seeing their first start on the A-Side and adjusting to the jetlag from just landing in the country not a full 48 hours before kick-off.
"I am looking forward to learning from this game," says senior Ryan Putka. "Keio is going to be very good and I think we are going to learn what we need to work on as a team."
Putka led the opening chant for the Wildcats and it was game time from Tokyo as Keio would kick off to the Cats to begin. In the opening minutes, the Wildcats made terrific defensive stands against an agile Keio team. But the organization and pinpoint passing from Keio opened the door for them to take over this match. In the first 30 minutes, Keio would find the try zone four times and lead at the break 24-0.
The A-Side came close to scoring in that first half, as the maul began to move within five meters of the try zone, but an infraction by the Wildcats forced a turnover, giving the ball back to Keio.
The second half would feature the B-Side squad, but it was more of the same from Keio as they would take on three more tries in the second half to make the score 43-0 as the final.
"Hopefully, the guys saw the speed of play and can replicate that moving forward. They were the smaller of the two sides but the most aggressive," explains Arbeznik. "There are a lot of lessons our guys can takeaway from this match."
One of the best moments from these international trips is both teams coming together to meet and even exchange shirts, hats and other apparel. Despite a heavy language barrier between the two sides, Saint Ignatius and Keio students found a way to communicate with one another.
This match marked the fourth continent that Wildcat Rugby has played a match on and was a moment to reflect on how far the program has grown since 2015. "All credit goes to the high school and administration for allowing us to pursue these international trips," Arbeznik says. "I think that is a part of who the Jesuits are; they embrace these opportunities. This has been great for our families and kids and I am glad we can offer these types of opportunities to the school."
After a long day on the Rugby pitch, the team was treated to a show by the Amawres Brothers, a comedy wrestling group in Japan. Special thanks to coach Tadaaki Hatta for setting that night up.
The final day in Tokyo happened to be Easter Sunday on April 9, as the Wildcats would celebrate Easter Mass at St. Ignatius Church in Tokyo. When the mass concluded, the team would walk over to Tokyo Station, where they would take the Bullet Train to their next city, Kyoto.
On their first full day in Kyoto, the Wildcats would spend the day exploring the former capital city of Japan, a city with multiple cultural gems and the first stop was at the Fushimi Inari Shrine, a trail path in the mountains that has many beautiful walkway shrines and thousands of gates known as Senbon Torii. This hike was an excellent way to warm up the student-athletes legs before their next match coming the following day.
The next stop was at the Kiyomizu-Dera, a Buddhist temple that is historic to Kyoto and outlooks the city on a mountain. This temple was founded in 778 AD and offered many shops and attractions and arguably one of the best views during the tour.
After a team lunch, the team headed over to Arayashima, known for its Bamboo Grove, Japan's most extensive bamboo forest. The team would break into two parts: visiting Iwatayama Monkey Park on the side of Mt. Arashiyama, where the students fed the monkeys and took in Kyoto from a mountainside and a walk through the bamboo forest.
Tuesday, April 11, was match day number two for the Wildcats. This was going to be one of the most significant tests of the season for the Wildcats as they were going to match up against Kyoto Seisho, a nationally ranked program in Japan. Before heading over, the Cats took advantage of a nearby park by their hotel for a quick 45-minute practice in the morning. The practice played a significant role in how the Wildcats performed later that day.
The Rugby Cats arrived at Nishi Kyogoku Grounds, which would be the largest venue any Wildcat players have played. Their future opponents greeted them and Kyoto Seisho applauded the Cats as they came off the buses. This match was an exclusive A-side match and the Wildcats had to bring their best, which they did on a warm evening from Kyoto.
In the seventh minute of the contest, Teagan Frain broke free from the Seisho defenders and was in for the first Wildcat try of the Spring Tour. The first half was a defensive battle, with neither team breaking on the pitch. Coach Arbeznik and the other coaching staff prepped the group before heading out for the next 30 minutes.
"This is what we aspire to be someday as a club. These are one of the teams that will compete at the top level," says Arbeznik. "This is the best of the best; embrace the challenge. There is a lot of opportunity for us on this pitch."
The A-Side gained a bit of strength back with the return of Matthew Ruddy and Will Riley on the pitch. After tying the match in the opening minutes of the second half, the Wildcats began to break through against a strong Seisho defensive unit. At the 37-minute, Aiden Pickston placed a perfectly kicked ball that senior Kevin Krebs secured and had nothing but open grass in front of him for a try. Pickston's conversion was good, making the score 12-5.
"My plan in this game was to be a distributor," explains Pickston." Space opened up, I went for it and Krebs came away with the try."
Just two minutes later, junior Patrick Cooney muscled his way in for a try and the conversion put the Cats up 19-5. The scoring avalanche would continue as Putka would sneak in at the 41-minute mark. The Wildcats would cap off their scoring with a try from Jimmy Collins and Connor Bender.
Saint Ignatius would seal win number one on the Spring Tour with a 40-10 victory over Kyoto Seisho. Both teams would come together to exchange gifts and share a meal. This would be one of the best victories in program history, coming from a nationally renowned team in Japan.
"It shows what we can do when we give it full effort," says Kevin Krebs," "We have a young group of guys, but when we play together like that, we can accomplish anything."
The next day the Wildcats would have their third and final match in Japan. This would be an excellent simulation for the National Tournament in May, when the Wildcats will play on back-to-back days. Before the game in Kobe, Japan, the Wildcats would visit Osaka, the second largest city in Japan. The Cats would visit shops and enjoy hearty street food before heading to Kobe.
The B-Side would match up against Rokko Gakuin and A-Side would take on Kwansei Gakuin. The B-Side came away with a 26-10 victory with a game-sealing try by senior Carter Snyder to finish their tour of games in Japan. The A-Side was next and the Wildcats took an early 7-0 lead with a Jacob Papesh try.
Gakuin would return to score two tries before halftime and take a 14-7 lead into the break. The second half was a defensive bruising between both sides, Gakuin and Saint Ignatius had multiple opportunities to score, but the defenses held true. Unfortunately for the Cats, they ran out of time and fell to Gakuin 14-7 in their final match in Japan.
The following two days, the Wildcats would tour Nakatsugawa, a city between Tokyo and Kyoto with a population of just under 80,000. Nakatsugawa offers gorgeous hiking trails as the Cats went to Magome-Juku. On their final day in Japan, Saint Ignatius visited Sugi-no-Ko Kindergarten. The students sang two Japanese songs to the Wildcats and in return, the Cats taught the students the Hokey Pokey and Heads-Shoulders-Knees and Toes.
The rugby players that are dual-sport wrestlers, got to meet Gold Medalist Greco-Roman wrestler Ken Matsui and Putka even got to get in a quick match with Matsui where the senior picked up Matsui for a moment. Seniors Brendan Lynn and Carter Snyder also got a picture with the World Champ.
The students gave the Wildcats gifts as the team departed for Tokyo to leave the following day.
The Rugby Cats would cap the trip with a 1-2 record on their tour of Japan. They are taking valuable experience back to Northeast Ohio as they prepare to gear themselves to defend their National Title crown in May and, hopefully, another State Championship in Ohio.
Japan is the fourth continent that the Rugby program has visited and the hope is to continue these international trips moving forward. What started as an idea in 2015 has become a reality for coach Arbeznik's rugby program.
A huge thank you goes to coach Arbeznik and his wife Ellen for their hard work in making the trip possible and the copious amount of late-night planning each day to give the students a memorable experience. Along with coach Hatta for his contributions to making the trip possible with his knowledge of the language and the land.
As the Rugby Cats return to playing on American soil, their mindset now shifts to the ultimate goal, winning back-to-back National Championships. The Cats will compete at Nationals in Elkhart, Indiana, beginning on May 25.
- Joe Mertens '15