Rugby World Cup: Nervous Japan come through in the end after finding their feet
Brave Blossoms thrill Tokyo crowd as they run out 30-10 winners over Russia
Russia’s Kirill Golosnitskiy and Japan’s Kotaro Matsushima jump for the ball during the opening Rugby World Cup Pool A match at the Tokyo Stadium. Photograph: Odd Andersen/AFP
The Earth shifts with a Rising Sun. At least that’s what Fumihito, Crown Prince Akishino of Japan, assured Billy Beaumont and everybody else as rugby union had its night of nights in Tokyo. One thing is for sure: in sunshine or under lights, the Japanese handle a rugby ball like it’s a hot coal and they are fun to watch. In front of a thrilled local crowd on Friday night, the Brave Blossoms did their bit to get the Rugby World Cup off to a charged beginning of what will be an adventure into the great unknown,
Everything went perfectly. The forecast typhoons lost interest and decided to stay away. Japan got over early jitters and won the opening game with a 30-10 win over leaden Russia that was at once highly skilled, chaotic and ultimately made memorable by three virtuoso tries from Kataro Matsushima, the exuberant winger whose Insta’ account should have enjoyed a bump in the early hours of Saturday morning. The hosts got off to the kind of start that will leave them dreaming of a more audacious Celtic scalp in the form of Ireland or Scotland.
The Russians? Well, the anthem sounded wonderful, they had the distinction of scoring the first try of the tournament and afterwards their captain Vasily Artemyev gave an eloquent account of what the evening meant to his team, drawing a round of applause from his Japanese audience as he limped towards the baths.
“This world cup is quite different because we were part of the opening match and ceremony. We are getting a lot of attention. It is huge – it is quite unnatural to our players but they went along really well with it. That is what is different from eight years ago when we were first at the World Cup. And the hospitality – we have come here and are surrounded by smiles and people who are willing to do everything. We will do our best to entertain the public.”
As a credo, it was a good summary of the aspiration of this entire World Cup. Rugby is breaking new ground over the next month, bringing its elite teams and precise laws and the visual weirdness of its scrum to a brand new audience, not just the 126 million across Japan but to the East in general.
Any fears that Tokyo would respond to the presence of rugby’s leading nations with a shrug melted away in the noonday heat. The fans were out and about, with ’Boks and Ireland and Argentina jerseys visible in the crowds navigating the warren of corridors and levels in the train stations of Shinjuku and Shibuya.
The locals arrived early to see the opening ceremony, beginning with a flyover from the Japan Air Force’s 11th squadron and ending with Richie McCaw casting a baleful glance backwards after placing the Webb Ellis trophy on a plinth and leaving it for this generation of All Blacks to pocket for a third successive tournament.
Bringing this World Cup to Japan has helped to at least disguise the issue that in rugby, certain truths are held to be self-evident – that the English will be belligerent, the Scots gamble with the offside line and that the All Blacks always win. But here was Japan and Russia, exotic nations in the rugby-sphere, taking centre stage on a glittering weekend crowded with glamorous encounters and revolving around the Saturday meeting of South Africa and New Zealand.
And the pressure on Jamie Joseph’s Japan team to not blink under the most intense spotlight of their lives was intense. For five awful opening minutes, it seemed as if they were in danger of completely disintegrating in the heat, spilling the ball from the kick-off and then gifting the Russians with a try in the third minutes when fullback William Tupou dropped a routine high ball, allowing the disbelieving Krill Golosnitskiy to collect and dive across the line unchallenged.
A horrible silence fell across the stadium as the Japanese contemplated the visitation of having to witness a long night of national disgrace. But within minutes, the Blossoms were on the attack and the crowd responded as if they were riding the wildest rollercoaster in the theme park.
Which they were.
The Japanese remained alarmingly unpredictable under the high ball all evening and it wasn’t hard to imagine the implacable gaze of Joe Schmidt drinking in every moment of calamitous uncertainty. But none of that mattered after Matsushima ran in the last score of the evening to leave a considerable distance between the countries on the scoreboard.
“Tier one rugby isn’t a level above what we are used to: it is a different sport,” said Lyn Jones, admitted the Russian coach. Quite where Japan lie in those tiers will become clearer when they meet Ireland next Saturday. Head coach Joseph was asked about Ireland but, in keeping with the theme of the night, he deftly sidestepped the question. It will, at the very least, be quite the culture clash.