buruma153_Craig MercerMB MediaGetty Images_siyakolisirugbysouthafrica Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images

Sporting Tribes

It is remarkable how quickly tribal feelings can adapt to new circumstances. To see how and why, look no further than British soccer clubs, which, like clubs in many European cities, once commanded ferocious loyalty along geographic, ethnic, and even religious grounds.

NEW YORK – Siya Kolisi, who raised the Webb Ellis Cup for his country in Yokohama, Japan, early this month, is the first black man to captain the South African national rugby union team, the Springboks, in a game that used to be associated entirely with white South Africans. He was born in a poor township in the Eastern Cape. Jean de Villiers, a former Springbok captain, said the Springboks’ victory was “for the whole country.” But it was something in which even non-South Africans could rejoice.

In a way, however, Michael Leitch, the captain of the Japanese team, the Brave Blossoms, is an even more remarkable phenomenon. For several weeks, Leitch, born to a New Zealand father and Fijian mother, became the poster boy of a team representing one of the world’s most insular and ethnically homogeneous societies. Of course, native Japanese stock is hardly pure or monolithic. But, to most Japanese, ethnicity cannot be separated from nationality. Japaneseness runs in the blood. Leitch, who arrived in Japan for the first time as a 15-year-old schoolboy, seems to prove otherwise. He is now officially known in Japan as Leitch Michael – his names written in the Japanese order.

Leitch is not the only Japanese player from overseas. Other members of the team come from South Africa, Tonga, New Zealand, and South Korea. To be sure, there is an element of opportunism in the porousness of national sports teams, and the rules for rugby are especially generous. Countries like their teams to win, and they will take excellence where they can find it. This concept long predates international sports competitions. After all, most of the soldiers who defeated Napoleon for the Duke of Wellington were born outside the British Isles. Many didn’t even speak English.

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