Throughout the Pool A Rugby World Cup match between Japan and Ireland, you felt that the Irish were battling more than just fifteen rugby players. A raucous, 47,000 strong Shizuoka Stadium reverberated with the roars of Japan’s home support. You felt the strength of an entire nation willing, driving the hosts on towards victory. Ireland’s stars were stifled, suffocated under the weight of Japan’s intensity and desire.
It wasn’t just the fact that Japan defeated Ireland that was so remarkable, it was the manner in which they did it. This was a near flawless performance against one of the best sides in world rugby. They matched Ireland man for man, held better discipline, capitalised more effectively on their chances, causing their opponents countless problems in every area of the game – the line-out, the scrum, the breakdown.
It was the kind of performance that wins the hearts of the neutral. The scenes of celebration after the game showed just how much it meant to these Japanese players and supporters – wide smiles, hugs and kisses, and a jubilant crowd of supporters embracing one another. Even some Irish fans could only stand and applaud. Sometimes sport transcends mere on-field facts and statistics – this was a victory charged by emotion and pride.
The opening game of this Rugby World Cup – Japan against Russia – gave us a taste of this atmosphere, but it all reached a crescendo when the hosts played Ireland in Shizuoka. This was not David vs Goliath by any means; the world cup hosts were ranked 10th in the world before the tournament began, but that does not take away from the impressive nature of their victory over favourites Ireland.
“We expected them to be as good as they were. We knew they were going to be incredibly tough and so it proved,” said Irish coach Declan Kidney after the game. Japan have been known to spring a surprise at the Rugby World Cup, defeating South Africa in Brighton four years ago. Perhaps the respect Ireland gave their opponents is one reason Schmidt’s side failed to assert their qualities in the match, but the credit must go to Japan’s ability to win the game, rather than Ireland’s deficiencies in losing it.
They are an easy team to root for, a healthy blend of youth and experience, backed by a nation of rugby fans revelling in the joys being the first Asian nation to host the major tournament. By all accounts, much of the doubts surrounding Japan’s ability to host the competition have been allayed. They have proven gracious, well-equipped hosts, and their team has added significantly to the quality of the tournament thus far.
This is the first time in the history that the Rugby World Cup hosts have been genuine underdogs, and this makes Japan all the more endearing to rugby fans as a whole. Their supporters are fuelled by hope rather than expectation, and that makes the taste of victories like that over Ireland even sweeter. The team have put themselves in a great position to qualify from their pool, in what will be an enthralling conclusion to a group that also contains Scotland and Samoa. They may not have been highly fancied in pre-tournament Rugby World Cup odds from Betfair, but the Cherry Blossoms have proven they have the quality, and the support, to go far in the competition.
The most pleasing aspect of Japan’s performances is that they haven’t let the pressure of hosting the tournament affect them in the slightest, rather they have thrived under it. This is a rare chance for an up-and-coming rugby nation to make a real statement on the world stage, and so far Japan have grabbed that chance with both hands. Whatever happens between now and the end of the tournament, that victory over Ireland will live long in the memory of the Japanese nation, and may well inspire many young boys and girls to pick up a rugby ball for the first time. The only hope for the hosts is that there are still more memories to be made before this thrilling world cup comes to an end.