It may have taken time to make an impact, but this World Cup has finally captured the interest and imagination of the Japanese public — thanks in no small part to the exploits of their national team.
It’s been a hugely difficult and challenging week for the people of Japan, especially those living in the northern half of Honshu, the largest of the country’s five main islands. Death, destruction, and hardship has been visited on this country once again in the wake of the latest super typhoon yet the durability of its people remains the most striking feature.
In recent years, they have been hit by a series of devastating natural disasters, yet they appear to come back stronger from each experience.
The minute’s silence that preceded the game between the host nation and Scotland in Yokohama on Sunday evening was incredibly poignant, even just observing it on television. I can only imagine how emotional it was in the stadium.
Yet in the grip of adversity, the Japanese players rose above the turmoil to deliver an opening half of rugby that will live long in the memory. Despite falling behind to an excellent try from Scottish playmaker Finn Russell after six minutes of breathtaking action, Japan just dusted themselves down and produced a litany of magic moments when responding with three spectacular tries to lead 21-7 at the break.
It is fitting after what happened them at the 2015 World Cup — when Japan became the first side in tournament history to be eliminated after winning three of their four pool games — that they have now reached the last eight for the first time. To top a pool containing two Tier 1, Six Nations Championship teams is a remarkable achievement.
The fact that they beat South Africa in their opening pool game four years ago in England will prove a major inspiration for their quarter-final on Sunday, even if their comprehensive 41-7 defeat to the Springboks in Kumagaya just two weeks before this tournament kicked off is probably more relevant.
Who knows but that result might even instill a measure of complacency, even if subconsciously, in a Springbok camp that, in all probability, would have been bracing themselves for a showdown against Ireland.
At least avoiding that scenario has saved us days of speculation as to how the time spent by Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber in Munster (not to mention the insight of Felix Jones) might contribute to Ireland’s downfall.
Japan have prepared meticulously for this tournament, enjoying over 200 collective training days together this year alone with a view to peaking at the right time. Their experience playing in heat and humidity proved a huge factor in their defeat of Ireland but the conditions against Scotland were more in line with what we might experience in the latter months of a home season. Yet, Japan still blew Scotland away.
How satisfying too that their achievement in topping the pool was as a direct consequence of their actions on the field as opposed to benefitting from a two-point haul that a cancellation of the game would have yielded. To finish the pool three points ahead of Ireland and eight ahead of Scotland is a measure of just how impressively they have performed over the past month.
What it has also served to do is put Ireland on a collision course with tournament favourites, New Zealand. Given that — on the basis of their recent results in the Rugby Championship — there was little to separate Steve Hansen’s men from South Africa coming into this World Cup, Joe Schmidt must have been preparing for this eventuality in any event.
He knows the nuances of this All Blacks set up inside out and will, as always, present a blueprint to his players as to how to go about beating them. That is the real value Schmidt brings to the table. He will put a structure that offers a route to exposing the opposition’s weaknesses.
New Zealand tend to have fewer weaknesses than most but, good and all as they undoubtedly are, they are not as complete as the Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, and Jerome Kaino version that retained the Webb Ellis Cup at Twickenham four years ago.
In the opposite corner to Schmidt sits a man who, like his fellow countryman, is on the last lap of his bountiful journey as head coach. Hansen has a remarkable record with New Zealand, yet his greatest achievement will be retaining their crown this time out.
Their results in the year leading into this tournament were unremarkable by their standards. A 47-26 defeat to Australia in Brisbane on top of a 16-16 draw with South Africa in Wellington meant New Zealand surrendered their Rugby Championship title a bit more easily than anyone could have imagined.
Crucially however, even in the face of severe criticism from his besotted rugby nation, Hansen never blinked. He stuck rigidly to his guns in switching the mercurial Beauden Barrett to full-back while introducing the inexperienced Richie Mo’unga to the pivotal out-half role.
The way that duo are combining at present has more than justified Hansen’s faith in having two playmakers directing traffic. It has also given the side a more consistent placekicker in Mo’unga and removed any pressure that Barrett’s frequent lapses with the boot had placed on his shoulders.
Schmidt faces his biggest challenge this weekend in what could well prove his last outing as Irish coach after seven incredibly productive years at the helm. He would love nothing more than for Ireland to beat New Zealand for a third time on his watch.
He will leave no stone unturned in the quest to achieve that target. That is why he took the chance in flying legal council in from Dublin with former Leinster scrum-half Derek Hegarty tasked with making the case that Bundee Aki’s red card should be reduced to a yellow.
Given everything that has happened around some pretty poor refereeing calls in the early rounds of pool games and their subsequent admonishment from World Rugby, I always felt the authorities would be reluctant to throw another official in Australian referee Nic Berry — who had a very good game last Saturday — under the bus again by altering his on field call.
The decision to uphold that has been made and Ireland need to move on now and concentrate all of their energies in manufacturing a shock result against New Zealand. Nobody out here offers Ireland a chance while in New Zealand, they are confidently predicting a 20-point win for the All Blacks. That suits Ireland just fine.
As for the other two quarter-finals, it will be interesting to see if the French can continue to defy logic, form, and yet more reported infighting — apparently the management wanted to remove the captaincy from Guilhem Guirado, but the players weren’t having it — to beat a Welsh side that have been competent to date, especially in holding out to beat Australia in their pool.
France will draw strength from the fact that they were on the cusp of beating Wales in the opening round of this season’s Six Nations before second row Sebastian Vahamaahina threw a ridiculous pass that was intercepted by George North for a try that turned the tide. On the cusp of defeat first time out, Wales went on to win a Grand Slam.
Likewise Australia will fancy their chances in the war of the motormouths when Wallaby coach Michael Cheika and his England counterpart Eddie Jones go bald-headed for each other between now and Saturday.
England have been cruising along nicely in this tournament but it will be interesting to see if last weekend’s cancellation of their pool game against the French will prove a help or a hindrance.
They should have too much power up front for the Wallabies but there is bound to be one shock across the four quarter-finals this weekend. Here’s hoping Ireland are the side to provide it.