When the whistle blew in Shizuoka and Japanese fans erupted in the stands after an epic victory against Ireland you had to feel this was a shift in the World game.
It has been a while since a team has muscled in on the Tier 1 nations – Argentina were probably the last ones to do it but Japan is banging on the door. They play a fast and furious game but their technical skills and structure have improved out of sight. Tip of the hat to Kiwi coach Jamie Joseph here who has rounded out their game and plotted this World Cup campaign in masterly fashion.
To date it has been quite a ride hasn’t it! All pre conceptions about this first world cup in Asia have been blown out of the water with an astonishingly successful tournament to date. Humidity apart -which caused so much sweat in some games that even the All Blacks kept dropping the ball - the country has proved to be an inspired choice.
World Rugby can tick that box on their To Do list marked Expand the Game with this world cup. Japan seems to have wholeheartedly taken to the game of rugby with the players becoming household names and sales of the Brave Blossoms jersey hitting record levels.
One thing that has also absolutely delighted me has been the performance of the Tier 2 guys. I personally would not want to slim down the tournament to deny those guys their opportunity to play against rugby powerhouses such as the All Blacks, Springboks or England. I am not sure I agree with some commentators saying they think the gap has widened as it is pretty clear a lot of these teams are staying in the game for longer and making their opponents work so much harder than they are used to. Long gone are the three figure scores and the victory of part amateur Uruguay over Fiji was off the scale brilliant to witness. Even Russia, who on paper qualify as the lowest ranked side in the tournament have upped their game on this global stage and fought like tigers (or should that be Bears!) in every game.
As for the home nations- it is looking good for all four to make the quarter finals as long as Scotland can get the win against Japan on Sunday. It’s a shame in some ways that to make the play offs Scotland need to dump hosts Japan out of the tournament. In a twist of irony Japan could the second side in World Cup history to not make the quarters with three wins. The first side being of course Japan! We all remember in 2015 when they beat the Springboks but lost one game to Scotland and didn’t go through! If you watch any game this weekend that is the one to pick out to see if Japan can recreate a second miracle and crack the top 8 in a World Cup.
Fiji for a while threatened to derail Wales this week with an at times astonishing performance . Semi Radradra was unplayable at times! They are such a joy to watch with their mix of brutal physicality and wondrous off loading skills. It is like fantasy rugby at times and you feel all they need is more time together and investment in coaches and strength and conditioning to put them in the top tier.
A win for Fiji could have pushed Wales over to the England side of the draw which would have been such a shame to see one of our British sides having to pack their bags at the quarters stage. Now, however, if everything pans out as it should Wales and England avoid each other until a potential cup final! How glorious would that be..
Wales are showing all the signs of a finals team with the all important attribute of a superb defence. Fiji apart - who were rampant today - Wales have been brilliant in this area and World Cup finals are never high scoring games so Gatland’s men are in a really good place.
Ireland for me look a little rattled and have yet to click into the smoothest of gears. Hard to pinpoint why but as I have often said teams can stumble through the pool stages and still reach the finals. Look at 2007 when I was captaining England in 2007 and we were thrashed by South Africa in the pool stages yet went on and near as damm won the trophy!
Watching Ireland you can see just how important Jonny Sexton is to them. The guy is just class. When he plays Ireland tend to play well so you can understand the camp not risking him against Japan. Would they have won if he had played? I think they probably would have. In a way however the result of the lost is mostly a dent in confidence rather than anything worse such as failing to make the quarters. It looks like New Zealand possibly but permutations abound whereby it still could be South Africa once Japan and Scotland have their say.
As for England, my England I am still hopeful. They have a tough old side of the draw with the team needing four massive performances in a row to lift the trophy. We all know we have probably not seen England at their absolute best and that means we are all a little nervous – but there is no doubt this is a team who can go toe to toe with anybody. Can they, however, string big games together week after week as they will need to? The answers await but starting on Saturday against a team who just love to beat Les Rosbifs England should start to put a marker down.
So now my friends it is Sayonara from me or should I say G’day? I write this from the other side of the world where I am proudly launching Raging Bull in Myer department stores in Australia. Should England get to face Australia in the quarters it is going to be fun…