Long tours can be challenging, especially when things don’t go to plan on the field of play. That’s why so many of the large Irish support base that headed to Japan are feeling a little underwhelmed at the moment.
For them the last week has been tough. Week six tends to be that way at the best of times but, with Ireland having taken their leave from the World Cup, the buzz and expectation levels simply aren’t there anymore.
For the opening month of the tournament, it was difficult to walk down the street in any of the many cities we visited without bumping into someone you knew or, at the very least, were Irish and keen for a chat on the prospects of the team.
Those whose travel plans dictated in advance that they would be leaving for home after the quarter-final stage were at least consoled by the fact that they weren’t going to miss Ireland’s first appearance in a World Cup semi-final.
For those who had committed for a longer stay, Ireland’s defeat to New Zealand has proven even more painful.
After a few days drowning their sorrows away from Tokyo, a return to the capital last Thursday only served to reinforce that empty feeling.
Our hotel, the New Otani in the Chiyoda-Ku district of Tokyo, was like a fortress as it not only hosted the Welsh squad preparing for their semi-final against South Africa, but also the Chinese delegation present in the city to mark the four-day inauguration ceremonies for the new Japanese Emperor.
Crown Prince Naruhito ascended to Japan’s Chrysanthemum Throne at midnight last Wednesday, marking the beginning of the new Reiwa era.
The new emperor succeeded his father, Akihito, who became the first emperor to abdicate since 1817.
It’s not often that you have to undergo a full-body search when entering your hotel.
When the buzzer sounds after passing through the metal detectors, it’s inevitable that questions need to be asked.
Try explaining to the Japanese security services — who haven’t a word of English between them — that a new knee and a pair of replacement hips are the root cause for the buzzing alarms!
Kon’nichiwa (hello), domo arigato zaimashashita (thank you, very much), kanpai (cheers), and sayonara (goodbye) will only carry you so far out here.
Thankfully, I was wearing shorts and the long scar down my right knee served to finally convince one of the younger officials of my bona fides.
Breakfast last Friday proved even more challenging.
The buffet was packed with English and Welsh supporters, enthusiastically discussing the chances of their teams progressing through their respective semi-finals against New Zealand and South Africa.
A number of Irish supporters turned up for grub in green IRFU tee shirts. It wasn’t long coming.
“Sorry for your troubles”.
“Ye were unlucky”.
“What happened to ye”?
My mind is whirring: what’s the Welsh for “piss off”?
For a brief moment, it crosses your mind that a New Zealand v South Africa final mightn’t be that bad after all.
That prompted another topic for discussion among the Irish fans as to who they should support in the two semis.
The Welsh were polling well in the debate until someone reminded the room that they refused to give Ireland their vote to host the 2023 World Cup.
The Munster contingent pointed to the fact that, after all, Rassie Erasmus, Jacques Nienaber, and Felix Jones learned their trade in Limerick and therefore we should back the Springboks.
That caused a few raised eyebrows in the large Leinster crew who wasted no time in reminding everyone that Jones was a graduate of their famed academy and learned his rugby with Seapoint and St Andrew’s College in Dublin.
At that point, provincial factions begin to rise to the surface.
The English, at least in a rugby context, supported us in our greatest hour of need when their captain John Pullin insisted his side should travel to Lansdowne Road at the height of the Troubles in 1973 after Scotland and Wales had refused to come the previous season.
Brian O’Driscoll’s excellent documentary Shoulder to Shoulder captured the mood succinctly around those historic events and reminded us of perhaps one of the most famous lines from a post-match speech when Pullin rose to his feet in the old Hibernian Hotel in Dublin, dodged a couple of flying bread rolls and declared “we might not be any good but at least we turned up”.
In addition, it is pointed out that, unlike our Celtic brethren Wales and Scotland, the English did give us their vote to host that World Cup in four years’ time and that deserved serious consideration.
All was going well until a dissenting voice from the back roared “under no circumstances”.
And we thought Brexit was complex!
Once the two semi-finals came round there was a genuine acceptance that the game needs a northern hemisphere winner or, at the very least, a presence in the final.
Four years ago, the penultimate stage became the sole preserve of the Rugby Championship when New Zealand faced South Africa and Australia played Argentina.
This time out, rugby north of the equator was well represented even if the hangover from Ireland’s exit was still very much in the air.
The Welsh may be renowned worldwide for the quality of their singing but the ‘Fields of Athenry’ was the most discernible tune during the slugfest between South Africa and Wales on Sunday.
If that game was akin to watching paint dry, the classic that unfolded in the same arena at the International Stadium in Yokohama 24 hours earlier will live in the memory for a long time.
From the moment New Zealand set to perform the haka, England countered with their V for victory formation and seized the initiative.
When Richie Mo’unga missed a simple one-on-one tackle on Elliot Daly to create an early line break, England immediately clicked into attack mode, put massive width on the ball, stressed the New Zealand defence, and delivered a cracking try from Manu Tuilagi after just 90seconds.
Eddie Jones had emphasized in advance how important it was for England to start well and carry the game to New Zealand but, not in his wildest dreams, could he have imagined such an explosive opening phase.
The quality of rugby delivered by England in such a pressurised environment speaks volumes for the way they prepared for this.
A team is only as good as the coaching and management group driving the effort and Jones added to that with two inspired additions to his coaching ticket last year.
Former All Blacks coach John Mitchell, after a long stint coaching in South Africa, had taken up a low-profile appointment as head coach to USA before Jones gave him a call to fill the void left when defence coach Paul Gustard left the set-up to become head coach of Harlequins.
Jones made another inspired choice by inviting one of his former assistant coaches from his time with Japan in Australian Scott Wisemantal.
He is credited with re-energising England’s attacking potency and his introduction has gone down well with the players.
Having that injection of fresh voices 18 months out from the World Cup has proved hugely beneficial but it could so easily have backfired had those new appointments caused confusion rather than clarity, which can so easily happen.
There is an element of risk associated with changing the coaching ticket at a comparatively late stage in the World Cup cycle but Jones knew what he was getting and trusted his new lieutenants to do a job.
England now stand 80 minutes away from ultimate glory.