Rugby World Cup: Nothing lost in translation as Japan’s players prepare for Ireland clash

Host nation well aware of strengths and opportunities ahead of Saturday’s game

There's a moment in Lost in Translation when Bill Murray, playing a jaded movie star and in Japan to accept an outrageous sum of money for doing a whiskey commercial, halts between takes to receive instruction from his irritated hipster director. The young man speaks rapidly and urgently in Japanese at the actor for a long time. Then the translator explains: "Ahh, with intensity." Murray , puzzled, asks: "Is that everything? It seemed like he said more than that."

Which is precisely how it sounded when the Japanese players sat down to talk about Ireland, their new favourite enemy, in one of Hamamatsu's needlessly gargantuan hotels on a steamy Monday afternoon. There was no sign of Jamie Joseph, the head coach who is plotting what would be the shock and victory to electrify this tournament.

But his influence was there in parade on the top table as first Asaeli Ai Valu and Uwe Helu, the Tongan raised forwards who are now Japanese citizens, and then centre Timothy Lafaele talked about what might happen when the national team faces Ireland in Shizuoka on Saturday. Valu has been in Japan since high school and explained that his Japanese is much stronger than his English by now. But both of the other Islanders used a translator.

So the questions came in Japanese and were then translated to the players to give an English reply which was then relayed to the rapt national media corps in Japanese. And in all instances, what was said in the local tongue seemed way more detailed than what was spoken in English.

Here is Helu’s teasing observation on what he noticed about Ireland’s win over Scotland.

“For me, watching that I feel we’ll have some opportunities . . .”

A pause then for a long translation in Japanese.

“For instance?” (in English now).

“Should I tell you?” Helu laughs.

The heavy silence indicates that, yes, he should.

“No, like when they defend they get quite close to each other,” he confesses.

There’s a thought that maybe Ireland defend too narrow? You can hurt them out wide? Can you get at defenders like Stockdale?

“Yes, that’s where I think the space is,” Helu agrees before turning his thoughts to Stockdale.

“He’s a strong player. For us we don’t need to go to individuals. He’s a good tackler too. And he’s scored a few times. He’s a good player.”

It’s not that Helu is being coy or surly: he couldn’t be friendlier but he has that Polynesian way of not wasting a word. But it’s obvious that they are enjoying this. An exciting win over Russia in front of a delighted local crowd in Tokyo leaves Japan perfectly primed for a nothing-to-lose against an Ireland team that has been all lit up in bright lights over recent seasons. He nods at the idea that the Irish might just mentally begin to turn their minds to a quarter-final meeting with South Africa.

“I think they will look down on us, that’s for sure. And we’ll do everything when we get our chance. From my point of view, we need to work as a team. Don’t go one on one. To make sure we topple them, go with someone. Don’t give them those chances.”

Lafaele watched a replay of Ireland's game on Sunday. The Samoan made his debut for Japan three years ago and has already featured prominently in the highlight reels of this World Cup after his very pretty offload to William Tupou led to Kataro Matsushima's coasting home for the best of his three tries. It was a perfect illustration of Japan's love of moving the ball wide at speed and for playing off the cuff.

“There were a few dropped high balls,” Lafaele said of Ireland’s game. “I think they’re a really strong team, they hold the ball well and they’re patient in defence. We’ll see what the game plan is for the week and if it’s to put them bombs up, we’ll put them up and chase well and put some pressure on.

“We can do a bit more protecting our catchers: giving them a bit more time. Ireland are good at competing in the air as well so I think our back line will be working really hard on that.”

In his years growing up in Auckland, Lafaele knew of Bundee Aki. “Got some mutual friends,” he elaborated. “Never played against each other. He’s done well for himself, leaving New Zealand and making a good name for himself in Ireland.”

The Polynesians have done the same for themselves here in Japan. Historically, the Brave Blossoms have always suffered against bigger and heavier nations and the recruitment of the Islanders has given Joseph’s team a more substantial look. But as with Ireland, ethnic diversity is still a relatively new concept in Japan. Residency players stand out here more than anywhere. Helu nods after hearing the long translation of a question about that subject.

“I feel this is my home,” he says slowly. “I didn’t know anyone when I came here but I was made to feel special and I’m happy.”

But he laughs at idea that there is more pressure, now, on the Japanese to back up their opening night win over Russia with something sensational when they meet Ireland.

“Well everyone expects Ireland to win because they’re number one at the moment. I think every game for us is a final so we’ll give everything. We’re hosting the World Cup. There’s nothing for us to leave behind so I think in every game we have to give everything.”

In either language, that message was clear.

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is a features writer with The Irish Times