Ireland in Japan: First impressions bring back unwelcome memories

In his first report from Japan, Gavin Cummiskey takes in Ireland’s official welcome ceremony

Andrew Porter, Josh van der Flier, Chris Farrell, Rory Best, James Ryan and Bundee Aki are presented with their Rugby World Cup caps at the  official welcome ceremony. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Andrew Porter, Josh van der Flier, Chris Farrell, Rory Best, James Ryan and Bundee Aki are presented with their Rugby World Cup caps at the official welcome ceremony. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

Here’s Johnny. The surroundings of the hotel where Ireland are bunkered down make an industrial estate outside Bordeaux feel almost enticing.

We were warned. The Irish Times soccer correspondent whispered as much the other day. “Chiba,” Malone visibly shuddered when the prefecture was mentioned in the office as Ireland’s first stop. “You can see the Tokyo skyline from your hotel room, yet it’s so far away that it’s torture.”

He is not wrong. The region, an hour east and south of the capital, remains untouched since the 2002 World Cup partly due to Japan’s long recession but the Irish hacks remember this sojourn as a prelude to the 3-0 victory over Saudi Arabia when Robbie Keane sparkled and Duffer bowed to the locals in Yokohama.

That’s where everyone is headed come Sunday week with Scotland lying in wait.

Not much stirring in between. There’s an empty beach nearby. No bars or cafes in walking distance unless you enter the university campus.

This copy is filed from Burger King near Kaihimmakuhari station. Needs must.

“We’re in a good place at the moment,” team manager Paul Dean, the former Ireland 10 sitting beside the incumbent after Friday’s welcoming ceremony, assured us. “We’ve been preparing for two years and we’ve been lucky enough to be here in 2017 for two weeks, where we got to see a lot of Tokyo and a lot of Japan.

“We’re in a good place and it’s great to be back here. A lot of us in the squad, players and management, have been here a few times. Jonathan (Sexton) was here when he was 16 (with St Mary’s), my first tour here was in 1985. We have a lot of friends in Japan and I have a lot of Japanese friends back in Dublin as well. We’ve done a lot of preparation and we’re looking forward to it.”

Of course, the forgotten tour of Mick Doyle and Ciarán Fitzgerald.

“I don’t think Johnny was born in 85!”

True. Sexton entered this world a month later.

“Ireland toured here in ‘85 after we won the Triple Crown, but that was the amateur days,” Dean continued. “It’s nothing like what it is today. Today is fully professional, very well-organised and we’ve got a clear focus. In ‘85, it was more like a holiday. It was great, we saw great places and met loads of people, it was fun. It’s not as good with the guys here today because it’s more focused and professional.”

Ireland have a team of logistical experts so the same problem cannot possibly be repeated - excruciating boredom - 12 years on from the 2007 World Cup. Surely not. Although, the week before the second Pool A game against the host nation the squad will be squirreled away on an isolated golf resort.

Rory Best at the official welcome ceremony. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Rory Best at the official welcome ceremony. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Maybe it’s the jet lag. Maybe it’s the Soviet style flats surrounding colourless hotel towers looming in sunless white skies.

Maybe the All Blacks official welcome tomorrow inside Zojoji Temple in the shadow of Tokyo tower will raise the spirits.

Ireland took their ceremonial bow inside a windowless room at Mihama Bunka Hall. The Mayor of Ichihara - where the team train - spoke about awards they have received for “grass inspection.”

Rory Best barely kept a straight face when colouring the eye ball of what looked like a Papier-mâché dragon (it was actually a Daruma Doll modeled after the monk who founded the Zen tradition of Buddhism).

Something to do with setting an intention for the road ahead, but the marker didn’t work. Bad omen?

The players seemed chuffed with their new caps as they filed back onto the bus. Sexton calmed most concerns when patiently handling questions that needed translating to and from Japanese (this being the new norm).

“We only arrived yesterday so we haven’t had too much time to get out and about yet but we’ve had a fantastic welcome,” he said. “It’s been good so far.”

When asked about the importance of letting the mind wander away from practice, preparation and matches, Sexton mildly chided: “No, I’m looking forward to it. We had a few days off before we left, we got to spend some time with our families before being away for a long time, so we had that switch-off time. Now we’re about work and preparing, so there won’t be too much down time.”

Schmidt’s general sounds ready. At least the 34 year old is fit, right?

Jonathan Sexton signs autographs for fans before the official welcome ceremony. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Jonathan Sexton signs autographs for fans before the official welcome ceremony. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

“We’ll find out on Sunday (week),” he smiled. “You never know. Everything will be judged on results and form after Sunday. I feel physically very good. Obviously, I would have liked to play another game but a couple of issues prevented me from playing one extra game, I think I was only going to play two. I’m happy with the physical prep I did all summer and now I’m looking forward to getting stuck into this World Cup.”

To save the anoraks any hassle, Fitzgerald’s Triple Crowners wandered unbeaten from Morioka to Osaka and back to Tokyo with five wins, including two test matches, in May and June 1985.

Before the birth of Sexton. Simpler times when letting your hair down was insisted rather than restricted. We all know that being cooped up can play tricks on a rational Irish rugby man’s mind. New Zealand’s captain Kieran Read was out riding the rails on their social channels.

Other nations embrace the bright lights. There’s a balance that won’t be found in Chiba.

All work and no play . . .

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