Five hours before kick-off they were here, the front-runners among the 45,745 spectators desperate to bear witness to history in their £75 white-and-red replica shirts. Rugby’s low place in Japan’s sporting pecking order – think baseball, football and Sumo for starters – means many of those present may only have been rudimentarily aware of what they were watching, but they created an impressive atmosphere at this football stadium in Tokyo’s western suburbs – a sparkling new arena in the city centre is being built for next year’s Olympic Games, too late for the rugby, but you cannot have everything. It was party time mingled with parochialism as ear-splitting rapture greeted Kotaro Matsushima running in each of his three tries on the end of good passing by his centres as well as one late, exhausted clearance by Russia’s captain Vasily Artemyev.
A South African flanker by the name of Pieter ‘Lappies’ Labuschagne, who has qualified for Japan by residency, nabbed their other try with a rip of the ball from Russia’s ex-Sale Sharks lock Andrey Ostrikov, so a bonus point was secured, as most people had expected.
But Russia’s coach Lyn Jones had come up with an effective plan of chip kicks and short-side bursts, and his side had many good moments, including the World Cup’s fastest try in an opening match, scored by wing Kiril Golosnitskiy in four minutes, after the Japan full-back William Tupou lost the flight of a hoisted kick. Who knows what artful damage the likes of Ireland’s Johnny Sexton or Scotland’s Finn Russell will do to him later in Pool A, that also includes Samoa, if he continues like that.
Pre-match there had been a brief but pleasant opening ceremony, mainly a light show around a depiction of Mount Fiji, out of which Richie McCaw, New Zealand’s back-to-back winning captain of 2011 and 2015, emerged to hand over the World Cup trophy. A choir of Japanese schoolchildren very sweetly sang the tournament theme of World in Union, which is set to the tune of I Vow to Thee My Country. Maybe it should be ‘I Bow to Thee…’ as Japan’s team stood in a line on each side of the stadium at the end, bending forward from the hip to exchange respect with the crowd after the final whistle on a 30-10 victory.
In the days when Sir Bill Beaumont was England’s rugby captain in the 1970s and early 80s, the game was amateur and not ready for a World Cup. Last night the ninth edition since the old farts relented in 1987 allowed Beaumont as chairman of World Rugby to hail a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to grow rugby in Asia and around the globe,” as he invited His Imperial Highness Crown Prince Akishino to declare the competition open. Financial types believe all sorts of markets await in China, India and beyond,
Jamie Joseph, the Japan coach, said: “You can’t really train for a game like that when the players have been waiting four years to play it.”
And while the Irish and Scots may not have been daunted by what they saw it was, after all, only the beginning, and a rousing one at that.
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