Japan, Eight Years On

We’re just hours away from the kickoff of the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan. It’s something of a bittersweet moment for me—rugby is my favourite sport to watch, either on TV or in person, and eight years ago I was in Japan while the 2011 RWC was taking place in New Zealand. Falling in love with the country, I decided that I would return, and that my return would coincide with the 2019 RWC.

Well, the gods laugh when men make plans, and that hasn’t happened. For a few reasons, the most notable of which was the subject of this blog’s most recent travelogue. Two major expeditions in one year would stretch my finances and holiday allowance far beyond breaking point, and so I’m leaving the up-close-and-personal experience to my brother, who’s heading to Japan himself in a day or two. For myself, I’ll have to be content with watching as many games as I can from the comfort of my couch or a suitably raucous pub.

I’m primarily a fan of the Ireland team, of course, representing as it does Ireland north and south (and east and west—there are four proud provinces, after all), and Ireland have a similarly fraught relationship to the RWC. Despite a few outstanding performances, they’ve never made it past the quarter finals (in 2011, I sat in a pub in Santa Cruz with a couple of professional golf caddies and watched them get thoroughly outplayed by Wales). This time, it seems that they might have timed their run well. Having enjoyed an annus mirabilis in 2018, they’ve been far less impressive in 2019 so far, other teams having seemingly figured out how to beat them. Improbably, a couple of wins against Wales in their last two games have elevated Ireland to the number 1 slot in the world rankings, and all of a sudden Irish fans are starting to believe that coach Joe Schmidt might just have enough tricks up his sleeve to take them to the promised land.

Of course, there are plenty of obstacles in the way. Assuming Ireland get through their group, they’ll likely face either New Zealand or South Africa in the quarters. It’s hard to say which would be the greater challenge. New Zealand have been the best team in the world for years, in addition to being the reigning champions, but they’ve looked fallible in the past year, and Ireland have a solid winning record against them recently. South Africa, who share a group with New Zealand, arrive from the opposite direction. Having been in the wilderness for a few years, they’re now looking as good as any team out there, led by coach Rassie Erasmus, formerly of Irish provincial side Munster. I’d actually back them to beat New Zealand to top their group and would even mark them as current favourites to win the whole thing.

As for the other main contenders? England are brutally efficient and have worked hard to eliminate the fallibilities that have undermined them in recent years. They took an undercooked Ireland to the cleaners in their most recent meeting, but which side will have benefited most from that lopsided result is hard to say before the tournament is over. Wales are the closest side to Ireland in terms of their ability to beat anyone when their system clicks, and they’re probably a little more reliable in terms of recent results. They share a group with Australia though, and the mercurial Ozzies are likely to surprise someone before the tournament is over. A far bigger surprise would be if France were to achieve anything of note—they’ve been a shambles for years—but that’s practically France’s raison d’etre, so England will not be comfortable sharing a group with them. Last of the tier-one nations, Scotland share a group with Ireland and are far from favourites to come out ahead in their meeting, just a week away now, but they can sparkle in attack if their opponents make the mistake of letting them do so. Ireland under Schmidt will have to be well prepared.

For neutrals and tournament organisers though, the tier-two nations are where it’s at. Teams like hosts Japan, who famously defeated South Africa in the 2015 RWC, as well as perennial also-rans like Georgia, Fiji, and Canada, and larger nations with the potential to spread the gospel of rugby union, like Russia and the USA. The better these teams do and the more competitive they are—especially if one or two of them can spring a surprise against the larger teams—the better it is for the tournament, both this year and in the future. Both fans and organisers will be happier too, so there’s no downside unless you’re in or supporting a team on the wrong side of one of those surprises. (Looks nervously at the boys in green and crosses his fingers.)

But given that there’s only a few hours to go, and you don’t know much about rugby (its rules are less straightforward to parse than football’s), what can you do to catch up quick? Well, the first thing I’d advise you to do is hop onto Twitter and search for Squidge Rugby. This rugby-loving channel offers an affectionate and funny take on this sport of thugs, played by gentlemen, and he’s in Japan as I write this, preparing to serve up videos throughout the tournament. Even better, before the tournament he provided brief profiles of each of the competing teams—their history, players, and chances in the games to come—so a small amount of entertaining effort will give you plenty of facts to drop into any rugby-related conversation you find yourself in.

For more immediate information, seek out Murray Kinsella on Twitter (@Murray_Kinsella). Possibly Ireland’s greatest living store of rugby-related knowledge, he’s been providing detailed breakdowns on Ireland’s games for years on the42.ie, and he’ll likely be working flat out during the tournament. Lastly, for listening while on the go, there’s the Blood & Mud podcast (@bloodandmud). A relaxed but engaged take on the rugby world, it’ll fill any gaps you’re seeking to have filled.

That’s as much info as any person, novice or otherwise, is likely to need. Apart from those, sit back, find a handy screen that’ll be showing the games (most of them in the early morning here in Ireland, due to the time difference), and enjoy. I know I will (with possible blips should Ireland’s participation turn into a nightmare once more). This should be one of the closest RWCs ever, and it’s genuinely impossible to pick a definite favourite from among the world’s top six teams. #shouldertoshoulder

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