Japan’s forwards had been spiky all day.
For the guts of an hour they bossed and bullied so many collisions against a renowned Irish pack, establishing a foothold in the game despite the concession of an early 12-3 lead and building from there to ensure that this Pool A World Cup encounter would be played on their terms as well as their patch.
It was one hell of a statement of intent and Luke Thompson was still intent on putting his stamp on this historic day a good hour after the final whistle when someone made the mistake of suggesting that Ireland had been ‘well on top’ at the end of that first quarter.
(Guilty, your honour).
“Aw, I’d debate that now, that they were well on top,” said the veteran lock who has been living and playing in Japan for 16 years now. “I think they scored two tries from kicks but if you are asking if they were well on top, then it’s not true at all.”
Thompson has been playing test rugby for the Cherry Blossoms since 2007. He played in the first of his four World Cups that year when Japan shipped 91 points to Australia and 72 to Wales. The high point then was a 12-12 draw with Canada in Bordeaux.
The 2015 tournament, when they saw off the Springboks and won two other games, showed exactly how far they had come, and what latent potential there was in the game here, and yet Thompson wasn’t exactly happy with the vibes he was picking up prior to this one.
“South Africa was amazing and this was truly amazing as well. Everyone had written us off. All the Irish media were talking about South Africa and how they are going to play them in the quarter finals and what they have to do. So we know what we have to do. It’s a very special moment.”
So he’ll enjoy this. Michael Leitch was more po-faced afterwards. The celebrations started and ended in the dressing-room, he said. Thompson will allow himself a beer or two tonight though. Days like these are the reason you play the game, he said. He’s right.
But there was no giddiness, no wide-eyed disbelief at what had just happened.
Ireland scored 12 tries across two tests against Japan here in the summer of 2017. They did it without their best players who were on British and Irish Lions duties in New Zealand at the time but Thompson’s thoughts on this game were remarkably matter-of-fact.
Why did they win? They prepared well, knew their game better and are better athletes now than then. They won, he said, because they didn’t let Ireland do what they wanted to do. They won because they did what they wanted to do. Who says rugby is a complicated game?
The estimated TV audience for their tournament opener against Russia last Friday week was 40 million people. That’s about a third of the total population. God knows what it must have been by the time the final whistle went here and yet Japan played like a side devoid of any pressure.