Well, pray tell me, how does one dissect that? Where do I begin?

Let’s try the end…

When I envisaged leaving the Ecopa Stadium on Saturday night, I certainly didn’t expect it to be in a state of despair, and on the receiving end of a barrage of curt and consoling text messages. Simply “OMG”, read one. “Are you alive?” read another.

Nor did I foresee a procession of celebratory fireworks lighting up the evening sky in a rising sun red. And I really never imagined that I’d be leaving that rugby ground to the deafening roar of some 40,000 Japanese rugby fans congratulating their successful team. But that is the unpredictability of professional sport. And once again Japan has slain a rugby giant.

Into the Belly of the Beast

From the moment I entered the stadium, about 15 minutes before kick-off, the atmosphere was frenetic. It’s a sporting amphitheatre located in an otherwise anonymous stretch of undulating hills in the Shizuoka countryside. It rightly deserves its place on the Rugby World Cup venue roster: a two-tiered oval of 50,889 seats, with excellent vantage points all around the park.

The Japanese fans should also be credited; they certainly wear their colors, or should I say their stripes. All around me swept a human sea of red and white; a who’s who of Where’s Waldo?. And as the game ramped up in intensity so did the noise; so much for my impression of Japanese fans as being reserved. Towards the dying embers, Ireland was on the ropes, and the Ecopa Stadium turned into a sizzling cauldron. Unfortunately, it was Ireland getting cooked. A pot of Irish stew fit to feed a ravenous Japanese nation.

The Japanese Juggernaut

I’m wildly competitive when it comes to rugby, make no bones about it. “If it bleeds, we kill it.” That was my attitude: ruthless. And that’s exactly what Ireland needed – yet failed – to be. After the opening 20 minutes of helter-skelter rugby, with Ireland two scores to the good, I felt slightly buoyed – and a good deal less stressed. It seemed that this would be another day of clinical efficiency at the office.

A further 20 minutes on the clock, and I couldn’t help but sense a little rumble coming in the second-half jungle. When the half-time whistle blew, the Irish players looked relieved to see the opening exchanges brought to a close. The body language belied their 12-9 lead. It felt like we were in for a scare after the break. The Japanese – players and fans alike – had clearly identified that Ireland was there for the taking.

In the second-half, Japan battered us with an intensity I couldn’t believe. With inspired substitution and captain, Michael Leitch, leading the charge, Japan was an unstoppable juggernaut going forward. When Ireland kicked poorly to Japan’s electric outside backs, the response was an onslaught of flesh and bone rockets exploding forth with terrifying vigor. To steal a quote from the Twittersphere: it was “the land of the scything run.” Simply put, Japan spat in the face of the “Tier 2 Nation” status that they’ve consistently been tagged with over the years.

When the final gong rang, and the chants of “Ni-ppon” reverberated around the Ecopa, Japan was good for its 19 – 12 victory; in fact, it probably should have been more. Could a few more refereeing decisions have gone Ireland’s way? I think you could make that case. Would the game have been different if Johnny Sexton wasn’t wrapped up in cotton wool in the stands? Maybe. But the milk has been spilled.

A Clash of Emotions?

Writing this article two days into the post-mortem, my initial feelings of despair have subsided somewhat, but I’d be lying if I told you the wound has healed. It’s raw, and I imagine it to stay so for a little while yet.

But don’t get me wrong, I don’t begrudge Japan of this victory whatsoever. I like this country. Quite a bit may I add. Not only have I called Japan home for the guts of two years of my existence, but their rugby team embodies many of the aspects that make this sport great.

It’s a team that can get you off your seat, playing the game with reckless abandon. It plays with an equal sense of ambition, fearlessly flinging the ball into the wide channels in the sort of cavalier manor that can give us British Isles pragmatists a heart attack.

Japan’s offloading game, though suicidal at times, is almost unplayable when it comes off. And now they are the holders of international rugby’s two greatest ever scalps, with this performance belting out echoes of Japan felling the Springboks in a David vs Goliath contest at the 2015 World Cup.

In short, I couldn’t have wished this World Cup upset on a more deserving team. But with Ireland on the receiving end, I’m still choking down the bitter pill. It’s bizarre watching sporting history, a wonderful underdog tale for the ages, and not being able to enjoy it.

At the end of the day, Ireland’s World Cup race has not yet been run, there’s still a way to go. But the nation’s expectations have been tempered, screeching to an audible halt. As for Japan, what a way to shake up the Rugby World Cup in their own backyard, rising to all-time-high of 8th in the official world rankings in the process. And what a way for Japan to prove that it deserves to be up there on the biggest stage, going to toe to toe with the world’s best.

Feature image: Photo by Clive Rose – World Rugby via Getty Images