Wallowing in the glory of Richmond’s 89-point thrashing of Greater Western Sydney in the AFL grand final meant I was late to secure a spot at my Shinbashi local for Japan versus Ireland.
Bulky lads caped in Irish flags spilled so deep into the street that there was no chance of getting within cooee of a TV monitor. There was no dice at the next couple of venues too for what was obviously the hottest ticket in town.
With options fast running out, suddenly there was divine intervention – not Hugh Grant-style divine intervention, but a tap on my shoulder – and a tall Japanese man, aged around 30, eagerly waving at me to cross the street with him.
This was no time to consider the possibility of being led into a Yakuza trap. I was all in.
We stooped to enter a tiny restaurant, with seats and tables made for a dolls house. But, most importantly, there was a television, and there was beer. At half the price of the sports bar a few metres away.
I showed my gratitude in the only way possible: to take care of the tab and to show my new friend Etsu a pic of Amanaki Mafi spruiking my book in Melbourne in happier times before things turned dark in Dunedin.
Not five minutes later Mafi popped some rib cartilage and was off. “No more photos, please,” insisted Etsu.
Joined by his charming French date, much frivolity was had at half-time in a game to name the emblem of each competing nation, Etsu incredulous to learn the French emblem was not in fact a chicken but a cock.
As Japan edged ahead, the atmosphere in the bar reached fever pitch, by now everyone joining in unison to herald each Japanese tackle as if they were Spaniards cheering on a bullfighter.
Then, as flyhalf Joey Carberry meekly hoofed the ball into touch to simultaneously raise the white flag of surrender and secure Ireland a bonus point, it was done. The miracle of Brighton 2015 now had a twin.
Buoyant, we bade our farewells and as my friends headed off to the nearest official fan zone to celebrate further, I reflected on how I was a fleeting contributor to what was possibly the greatest day so far of Etsu’s life.
A couple of days earlier I had watched the Italy versus Canada match with a Chicago-based Irishman who put me onto a book by acclaimed Irish funnyman-author Ross O’Carroll-Kelly called Schmidt Happens, a tale of family drama woven around a plot involving Joe Schmidt and his supposed interest in the protagonist’s own Book of Rugby Tactics.
It was disappointing that Schmidt’s kneejerk reaction to this Japan loss was centred on referee Angus Gardner, especially when Gardner was nowhere near the top of the list of reasons for losing.
Why anyone would choose to follow the footsteps of Michael Cheika in the victimhood stakes is perplexing. Time perhaps for Joe to reacquaint himself with the title of O’Carroll-Kelly’s book.
It was Carberry who had the right idea, acknowledging post-match that, “I suppose we’re going to have to regroup and take learnings from it”.
Maybe even a lesson as well, but then again, who are any of us to stand in the way of the evolution of the English language?
Enough has been written about Australia’s loss to Wales to fill Ben Tameifuna’s bathtub, but one thing that stood out at the stadium was the huge level of support for the Wallabies.
It’s a rare day when Wales are matched in the anthem stakes, and Rugby Australia has an interesting challenge on its hands to figure out how to replicate this type of atmosphere for Wallabies matches at home.
At least by the end of the week we got to learn that there was no siege mentality within the Wallabies camp. None. Zip. Nada. Nothing to see here.
Transfer to Osaka by shinkansen took what seemed like indecently quick time. Mt Fuji was peering over the top of the cloud line, but at the risk of offending the Japan tourism board, at this time of the year it’s more of a poor man’s Mt Ngauruhoe.
Hankering for a quick bite, a small restaurant directly across from my hotel looked the goods.
“Is this a smoking restaurant?” I asked the owner.
“Yes, smoking”, he replied eagerly.
“Gomen ne (sorry)”, I replied back. “I want no smoking.”
“Yes, no smoking,” he now insisted in what was the fastest turnaround since Romain Poite decided Ken Owens wasn’t actually offside at all in the deciding Lions versus All Blacks Test of 2017.
The Umeda section of Osaka is an underground labyrinth of train stations, eateries and department stores. Reacquainting myself with one of my favourite parts of Japan, the Hanshin basement food hall, I determined that if I ever lived and commuted in Osaka, I would never cook again.
Wednesday night and New Zealand versus Canada was on the menu with another vocal, friendly, mixed-nationality crowd gathered at a nearby ‘English pub’.
Here was a rare chance to eat fish and chips with chopsticks and delight at finding the house red was only $6 a glass – soon tempered by realising it was overpriced by at least double.
It was revealing to discover that watching a match with Japanese commentary is no less informative than taking in the usual coverage. Of note was the All Blacks No. 8, ‘Captain Reado’, and the intense fixation on Ardie Savea’s goggles, which – anticlimactically – lasted only a couple of minutes before fogging up in the Oita humidity.
The soapy ball contributed to a number of handling errors – as it has all tournament – although Scott Barrett’s failed plant in the first half also spoke to the lack of confidence evident in the refereeing ranks.
It was obvious to all watching that Barrett had spilled the ball forward in the act of scoring, as it must have been to referee Poite. But instead of calling it for what it was and getting on the with game, Poite signaled for the TMO.
It was reminiscent of today’s cricket umpires requesting third-umpire reviews for run out decisions they already know are in by two metres, thus rendering themselves no more than ball counters and hat collectors. It will be a sad day if this transformative period for rugby results in referees becoming as emasculated as their cricket counterparts.
Pre-match Thursday provided an opportunity to say hello to Keven Mealamu and congratulate him for coming in 33rd in The Roar’s all-time top 50 World Cup players, which, ever the gentleman, he seemed rather chuffed about.
Not that I looked too hard, but there seemed to be no sign around of the jilted Juan Martin Hernandez.
Hanazono Stadium in Osaka is the perfect venue for rugby – not a bad seat in the house – and even the promised thunderstorm stayed away, which was appreciated by another animated, vocal crowd.
And while Georgia may have lost the match 45-10 to Fiji, they definitely won the prize for the nation where the fans look most like their players.
Another winner was the Melbourne Rebels, whose new signing for 2020, Fijian halfback Frank Lomani, looked very accomplished, even if not matching the exploits of his winger, ex-Parramatta Eel Semi Radradra, whose day’s work consisted of a lazy three try assists and two brilliant finishes for his own scores.
It was a post-match with a difference, this time the customary train crush out of the stadium giving way to a walking tour of some of Osaka’s lesser-known dark corners, including a revealing stroll through a formal ‘red light’ neighbourhood. A foolish man indeed would be he who would mess with any of these stony-faced mesdames who stood sentry over their ethereal charges.
The tour also offered up a chance to sample kushikatsu, an Osaka speciality cuisine that basically comprises a whole lot of nice things – meat, seafood and vegetables – lightly breaded and fried. As good as it sounds.
So with the shinkansen breezing through Kyoto and Nagoya on the return to Tokyo, there was a chance to reflect on another week flown by, with a couple of the pools still up for grabs and everyone trying their best not to get too far ahead and focus on the quarter-finals.
More will become clearer on Sunday when Eddie’s chariot finally shifts into business mode against what should be a desperate Argentina.
Now officially free from siege mentality, Australia still has an important role to play in this World Cup, perhaps more so if Alan Jones’s idea to make Kurtley Beale an automatic selection in the starting XV and let him choose his own position takes hold.
It’s just the kind of thing that Michael Cheika is mad enough to adopt, although if he does, let’s hope Kurtley doesn’t choose flanker – the clip of his ‘effort’ at a 2017 scrum one of rugby’s all-time highlight/lowlight moments.