Chanelling my inner Nippon - cheering for the Japanese rugby team
IWISH hereby to out myself as unpatriotic… In the past I have felt the hairs rising on the back of my neck watching the telly as ‘Amhrán na bhFiann’ was played while Katie Taylor or Eamon Coghlan took a winner’s medal in some foreign field, wiping a sentimental tear from my eye when the camera turned to the tricolour. I have swayed and sung along in rowdy chorus - ‘come on you boys in green’ and ‘low lie the fields of Athenry’ and ‘shoulder to shoulder’ - as occasion demanded. I howled in righteous indignation as the slow motion replays showed how the hand of Thierry Henry denied our men World Cup advancement and I felt each blow as Barney McGuigan wilted before Stevie Cruz in pitiless Texan heat.
But the other morning I discovered myself cheering at the TV set as the Japanese rugby team made our lads look leaden-footed in the sweltering humidity of Shizuoka, spontaneously delighted that the better team had taken the victory. What on earth was going on in my mind? And not only in the mind of little old me. A fellow sportsman I met later that day confessed that he too discovered his inner Nippon coming as he watched proceedings from the Far East over his breakfast. And I suspect that we two were not the only ones to turn coats.
I recall talking to a distinguished veteran GAA man from Fibbergibbet who spoke of taking his seat in the stand at a county hurling final. The fixture pitted his free scoring neighbours from Ballygolightly against the tough tackling forces of Knockemover.
In the days before the big game, he decided that he would support the Ballygo lads. Sure, hadn’t he gone to school with the fathers of all the players. Hadn’t his daughter crossed the parish boundary to marry a Ballygo man. Didn’t he buy his groceries at the post office in Ballygolightly.
It was mid-way through the first half before he realised that he was howling in the manner of one deranged in support of Knockemover – and to hell with pre-match resolutions. Sure didn’t the Ballygo shower beat his own side in the final of 1957. Didn’t they use some highly dubious tactics in the process. And, worse, hadn’t they poached their star full forward from Fibbergibbet.
My friend’s experience underlines that sport is always more about the heart than it is about the head. So what is my excuse for scrumming down with the Japs? Maybe it was the way that the Irish sports media reacted to the win over Scotland to presume that topping our group at the tournament was now inevitable. All the lofty analysis was based on the expectation that Ireland could now plan for a quarter-final tilt at South Africa – done and dusted was the tone of commentary. This ignored the fact that Japan is a highly populated country with plenty of rugby players.
And remember, they beat the Springboks in the World Cup four years ago. The truth is that, if they had slightly bigger physique, then they would have muscled their way to the top of the sport long ago. With the Irish fielding many of their second-choice players in front of 60,000 home fans in sauna-like conditions, the presumption of victory was outrageous and unbecoming.
Perhaps armchair followers were also uneasy about Ireland’s billing as the number one rugby team in the world. Maybe there is a part of our Irish psyche which prefers to be in the corner of the outsider. We never really believed that we truly were the number one and were perversely happy when the team from the Rising Sun came along and proved us right.
Besides, casting aside all nationalistic bias, the winning outfit in Shizuoka played enterprising rugby. They were slinging the ball around like hyperactive schoolboys, a contrast to the moronic bishbash style which has become the norm in international test rugby.
So, to sum up, Saturday’s result gave the rugby establishment a poke in the eye, re-established Ireland’s traditional status as underdogs, and offered us some skilful entertainment. In short it was a good 80 minutes work.
From here on in, of course, we will back Joe Schmidt’s team – now re-cast as plucky unfancied journeymen - to the hilt. With any luck they will have the chance to extract prompt revenge from Japan – in the final.