Japan misstep stung, but Ireland may yet take down a big gun

Japan misstep stung, but Ireland may yet take down a big gun
STEPPING UP: Ireland’s Luke McGrath takes some stepping stones in his stride in Kobe yesterday, ahead of tomorrow’s World Cup clash with Russia. Picture: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Just like about everything else he did with the Lions in 2005, Clive Woodward may have overthought and overdone it when trying to acknowledge and respect the locals’ customs, his suggestion upon consulting a Maori elder that his captain greet the haka by pulling up some grass and throwing it the way of Tana Umaga resulting in Brian O’Driscoll being stretchered off moments later.

Still, it can help to know the way and words of the natives, in rugby as much as anything else.

Just like the best Gaeltachts, in Japan they have idioms that contain more wisdom and poetry than often English can offer.

And rooted in many of them is the virtue of humility.

A particularly popular Japanese proverb is ‘I no naka no kawazu, taikai wo sirazu’ — a frog in a well never knows the vast ocean.

It comes from a fable about a certain amphibian who was very proud that he was the biggest creature in the well. Consequently, he believed he was invincible and decided one day to leave the well.

But when he ended up in the ocean, he realised he was much smaller than he thought. Don’t overestimate yourself in the scheme of things.

Last weekend Irish rugby — or at least a certain section of its cheerleaders — got to know how it felt to be that frog outside of the more familiar and comfortable surroundings of the Six Nations.

Indeed, it wouldn’t be surprising if Japan, continuously ringfenced out of every major rugby competition bar the quadrennial tournament it’s now hosting, have viewed Ireland, Scotland, and other traditional rugby forces as frogs to welcome to the ocean, their ocean, with all its turbulence and humidity: See how you like it here.

There’s a lesson — or a learning, given the sport’s propensity to use that term — for World Rugby itself in all that. While it deserves some credit for awarding Japan the rights to host the tournament, a decision vindicated by both the crowd and the result in Shizuoka alone, it needs to re-evaluate and open up more of its traditional competitions. Why only six nations — and always the same six nations — in Europe? Why just four teams in the Rugby Championship? Less gated communities will result in a greater number and variety of legitimate competitive countries and a proper claim to being a proper global sport.

The Japanese also say, ‘Nô aru taka wa tsume wo kakusu’ — the skilful haw hides its talons. In other words, the hawk doesn’t show off unnecessarily to its prey.

While Alan Quinlan is correct in noting that any arrogance from Ireland would stem from supporters and the media rather than Joe Schmidt’s staff or players, it’s evident from some of the Japanese’s comments that they felt Ireland weren’t going to be necessarily focused, and thus, grounded for the challenge they would present. And like in one of the best and longest traditions in Irish sport, they would have taken energy from ‘what all their papers had to say about us’.

Still, it was just one game. The Japanese have another saying: ‘Saru mo ki kara ochiru’ — even a kappa can drown. Even a monkey can fall from a tree. And even a side second in the world rankings can slip up and lose in a pool game.

Flicking between RTÉ and eir’s coverage last Saturday morning, we were disappointed and infuriated like everyone else that there wasn’t any panellists or presenters in touch with the national mood. It was all too sterile, polite.

Whatever about a George Hook, there needed to be a Brent Pope to express the bewilderment of the common viewer. A Dunphy to throw a pen about the Egypt that was Japan. Someone to represent the person who’d be going for a pint that night, not someone who has been institutionalised in and by the video analysis room.

Forget about what Joe Schmidt would make of that, what should we make of Joe Schmidt? Don’t just say Ireland didn’t execute; why didn’t they execute? Mentally, were we off? Not adequately steeled or prepared?

Yet, to be fair to those pundits and panellists, they, like Rory Best and Schmidt interviewed shortly after the game, know only too well, that’s sport. Sometimes shit happens. Monkeys can fall from trees. While those pundits could have been a bit more enraged, it’s important Schmidt and his camp haven’t catastrophised matters either.

He’s not Japanese himself, but given tomorrow’s match against Russia is in Kobe, let us quote the great zen master of that name, one Mr Bryant, who defined mental toughness as “not getting too high or too low but staying at an even keel”.

Irish rugby supporters, like most supporters of all sports, even old-money constituencies, rarely keep that even keel. They often get carried away.

Cork win a Munster hurling championship and we’re back, baby, mushrooms overnight! Three Stripes on a shirt, JBM still beaming…! Ireland beat the All Blacks and it’s the greatest achievement ever in Irish sport! Beat Scotland in our opening game and we’re going to win the World Cup!

Then, after a defeat, it goes the other way. Just take the Schmidt era.

In his first Six Nations campaign we lost a Triple Crown decider to England in Twickenham. George Hook immediately told the nation it was a terrible display and result before Schmidt came on and told Clare McNamara he thought his team had played very well, they just didn’t get things right at the breakdown, but they’d absorb and apply the lessons. Two weeks later in Paris, Ireland had won the Six Nations.

The same the next year. Lose in Cardiff but within a fortnight Ireland are in Murrayfield hoisting the championship trophy aloft again.

Two years later, another loss in Cardiff, the second defeat of the campaign. There’s criticism, bordering on hysteria, of Schmidt and his ways. Yet a week later his team deny England another Grand Slam and subject Eddie Jones to his first defeat as their coach.

And then there’s been this year, the most wildly fluctuating of the lot.

Ronan O’Gara made the observation last month that Schmidt brought something to Irish rugby that had been previously lacking: Consistency. And he’s right, as much as the national team flirted with the concept for considerable stretches during Eddie O’Sullivan’s tenure. But Ireland have not been consistent this year. Too inconsistent to win it all, when privately the team would have had reason to believe that was a realistic goal.

But it also wouldn’t surprise us if they not only topped their group but proceeded to win their subsequent quarter-final against a South Africa. Their body of work suggests they’re good and gritty enough to bounce back and take down a big gun.

Maybe we’ve become too predictable to opponents under such a prescriptive coach as Schmidt and are far too reliant on Sexton — was it for Shizuoka that Joey Carbery left Leinster for Munster? But those hawks can still catch some prey. Don’t be surprised and don’t go overboard if they do.

RWC19 Podcast: The Japan inquest. ‘Only so many times you can bounce back before getting a headache’

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