Gerry Thornley: Japan v Scotland was a magnificent irrelevance
Decision to go ahead despite typhoon vindicated by uplifting performance from hosts
Japan’s hooker Shota Horie and fly-half Yu Tamura with Scotland’s centre Sam Johnson and prop Allan Dell during their Rugby World Cup Pool A match in Yokohama on Sunday. Photograph: William West/AFP via Getty Images
Only a game, but what a game. Japan and Scotland served up the best of the 37 pool matches in the last of them. After Typhoon Hagibis, which wreaked such damage, took lives and left people homeless, some of last week’s build-up to a mere game of rugby may have seemed a little out of place, and playing it may have seemed inappropriate. But the decision for it to go ahead was vindicated.
If ever a game could lift the spirits of a nation, or at any rate those Japanese who watched it, this was one of the all-time leading contenders. Sport won out, but that’s sport for you. It may be an irrelevance, but it can be a magnificent one.
To complete a fourth win in such an astonishingly entertaining match must make this the greatest pool campaign of any Tier 2 team to date, even if they have had all the benefits of home. England’s failure on home soil four years ago aside, the sole or ultimate hosts had won three of the previous tournaments, another two had reached finals and another a semi-final.
The Brave Blossoms’ performances clearly should have been flagged better than this, if only because they’ve now happened. Their results had been decent, winning the Pacific Nations Cup, but they slipped in under the radar – all the more so after their final, 45-7, warm-up defeat by South Africa.
It’s been different, but it’s clearly worked. They are super-fit. For such a high-tempo game, their intensity levels over 80 minutes are extraordinary. They continually steam onto the ball or accelerate into and through contact with undiminished energy.
How on earth does scrumhalf Yutaka Nagare move the ball away from the breakdown with such consistent speed?
That is key to their game, but, as Joseph has explained, they are no longer being bullied at set-piece time, so now we can see their array of footwork, passing and offloading skills flourish.
They have an abundance of tournament stars, high on the list being Shota Horie, possibly the hooker of the group stages, inspirational captain Michael Leitch and winger Kotaro Matsushima.
And so then there were eight. The whole tenor of the 2019 World Cup, like its eight predecessors, shifts entirely. Now it’s cup rugby, and one thing about the knockout stages of a tournament is that it doesn’t always follow that the best team wins.
If that were the case, then the All Blacks would have even more than the three they’ve already won. The French sides of 1999 and 2007 were not better than the All Blacks. They’d have won no more than one or two matches if they met 10 times that year, but they were inspired on the day.
The same is probably true of the misfiring Wallabies until they beat the All Blacks in the 2003 semi-finals in Sydney. England were the best team in the world that year, but so bad was referee Andre Watson in the final that they required a late drop goal in extra-time to win it.
Craig Joubert wasn’t much better in the 2011 final. The All Blacks swept all before them at home in 1987, but eight years ago they were blessed to beat a French team they’d easily dispatched in the group stages and who had lost to Tonga, when meeting again in the decider. There was a similar discrepancy between the Springboks-England pool meeting and final in 2007.
Even when Australia were the best team in 1991, they played their get-out-of-jail card against Ireland in Lansdowne Road in the quarter-finals and rode their luck a little against England in the decider.
So there’s plenty of evidence to encourage Irish supporters and those of the other underdogs next weekend, ie Australia (v England), France (v Wales) and Japan (v South Africa). Remarkably, it will be a seventh World meeting between England and the Wallabies, having shared the previous six and split two finals.
So much about next weekend’s games now comes down to the day, which is the product of preparation over the week. Much of the outside noise is just that, even Ireland’s record of six defeats out of six at the quarter-final stages (compared to New Zealand’s record of seven wins out of eight).
Playing the All Blacks may even help to liberate them from the baggage of the past. By the same token, it could probably be argued that Ireland’s recent wins over the All Blacks will provoke some of the champions’ best work next Saturday.
Even so, never before has an Irish squad gone into a World Cup with such a body of work behind them, and of course that includes not one but two historic wins out of three meetings with the All Blacks.
All of the last four meetings since Joe Schmidt became Irish head coach have been the most consistently competitive by miles in the history of the games between the two countries.
The first breakthrough victory was achieved in Soldier Field in Chicago after the Irish team aligned themselves as a human “8” opposite the haka in memory of Anthony Foley, with the Munster contingent to the front. It was powerful, Ireland for once drawing as much emotional energy from the haka. Although Ireland won the last meeting in Dublin last November without doing so, there was a case for maintaining that tradition in honour of Foley, and maybe now for reviving it.