Slowly but very surely, rugby and this World Cup are beginning to seep into the bones of Japanese society.
Uruguay’s upset of Fiji in Kamaishi has helped in maintaining the tournament’s momentum over the course of what threatened to be a more mundane week on the back of the opening few days, but a win for Japan against Ireland tomorrow and the whole country will be in thrall.
Jamie Joseph and his players know this. There is no way of avoiding the ramifications of a win in Shizuoka. The flip side of that is the pressure that it must exert on a side that has had to attune itself to life under an unfamiliar spotlight.
“As a host nation, what I can tell from my experiences with this team is it is exciting,” said Joseph. “The country itself has a lot of people. Rugby isn’t the major sport but Rugby World Cup has marketed really well and the games are well supported.
“It’s been a really successful tournament so far, but in many ways we’re sheltered from that and we shelter the players from that because I prepare the players to go out and play against Ireland, effectively just train and come back in.”
Joseph’s players have been sticking their chests out here all week, claiming Ireland would look down on Japan and that Cian Healy scrummages illegally. One of them, Lomano Lemeki, went as far as to predict a 33-26 win for the hosts because Jonathan Sexton wasn’t fully fit.
What he thinks now that Jack Carty starts and Sexton hasn’t even made the bench we don’t know but it is hard not to think that Japan didn’t feel a rush of encouragement when that news broke on Thursday morning local time.
Joseph was largely circumspect when addressing it though.
“I don’t think we’re the sort of team that can afford to be worried about whether Jonathan Sexton is playing or not,” said the Kiwi. “The quality of the team or players, you don’t get to be number one in the world with one or two quality players.
“While that is a surprise, it doesn’t change anything that we need to do. There’s a lot less experience without him, but I remember playing my first Test match, it’s going to be an exciting time and he’s going to go out and play very well, unless we can put him under pressure.”
Joseph backed up the suggestion that Ireland scrum illegally at times but it was dropped in almost unobtrusively into a longer remark, and Japan know the job they have if they are to match a powerful Irish pack in that setpiece and at the lineout or at the breakdown.
There were whispers prior to yesterday that veteran captain Michael Leitch would be held in reserve on the bench and he is actually one of four changes made from the opening defeat of Russia as Joseph juggles his resources to what he hopes will be the best effect.
“What I believe around the game, in terms of our bench, we’ve got to have an impact. If we’re going to be in a position to win the match it’s going to come down to the last five or ten minutes and we’ll need clear leadership.
“Michael has had an injury all year, he’s only played four or five games, and he’s a very key player. But we have a lot of quality loose-forwards and in-form players. So we have in-form players playing really well, and experienced players coming on. So as a coach I get to have both things.”
Big as this game is, Joseph knows that it is a shot at nothing for his side. If they are to make history and make the knockout stages for the first time then the more likely route is via a win against the Scots in the last round.
A firm showing at the Ecopa Stadium would set them up nicely for that.