Proud son of Wexford he may be, and of doughty farming stock too, but the heart sinks at the prospect of seeing yet again Tadhg Furlong, all 20-odd stone of him, emerge from a pile of bodies laying siege to the opposition line to lumber over for a try. Ireland’s brand of suffocating rugby has been effective but uninspiring over this World Cup. And without wishing to offend our cousins across the Irish Sea, the heart sinks at the prospect of Furlong, Stander and the rest of the boyos possibly putting out a free-running (if so far slightly untested) New Zealand in the second of this weekend’s mouth-watering quarter-finals. Those interminable multi-phase pick-and-go assaults might be part of rugby but they are sure as hell not great to watch. Keep the ball out of sight and make sure the game won’t attract a new audience seems to be the message.
That’s why Japan’s victory over a hardworking Scotland was so remarkable. The ball was always available, the offloading and handling was jaw-dropping to watch, the fitness, commitment and determination, as well as speed of thought, quite extraordinary. It was one of the greatest games of rugby ever seen, and one of the most joyful. Let’s hope that Japanese-style rugby can drag the game back from the clutches of the muscle men.
What that victory over Scotland highlights is how far you can get if you give the game your all, though it must still be a little puzzling to the casual rugby viewer that the Japan team is plainly so cosmopolitan. In fact fewer than half the squad are actually Japanese, which is either very good in that it reflects the diverse modern nature of a nation, or slightly odd in that it draws attention to international rugby’s eccentric qualification rules.
But the Japanese play a game that could bring in millions of new fans if more get to see it. Japan and Fiji should both be invited to grand-slam tours in the northern hemisphere over the next four years, and I would like to see the Lions play a Test against Japan on the way to Australia in 2025. Right now, whether Japan can get past the mighty Springboks — with the 5ft 7in Cheslin Kolbe as quick and elusive as a leopard — is another matter. I fear they won’t, but the ride will have been joyous. Wales look to be the only northern hemisphere side certain to get through to the semis, given France’s erratic performances so far.
England face Australia in an Ashes re-run for the first of the weekend’s thrillers. I don’t think we have seen the best of Australia, nor yet the worst of a slightly undercooked England, and if the two come together this Saturday there could be an untimely exit for Eddie Jones’s men. The Aussie pack has had a series of gruelling encounters to get them match fit, and in Hooper and Pocock they have two of the best players in the tournament. I worry that England haven’t had that extra game to play Mako Vunipola into the side, though Joe Marler has propped outstandingly well so far.
The Bulgarian football team should be thankful that, due to the racist ghastliness of the crowd, little attention has been paid to Monday’s events on the field. Bulgaria’s performance was abysmal, the sort of fare you can watch every weekend on Wandsworth Common. (I hope too that the admirable Gareth Southgate doesn’t think he has solved the England problems that were so apparent against the Czech Republic — namely the lack of a convincing midfield creator.) As for racism, English football grounds usually have some foam-flecked boneheads in the crowd. I was at Stamford Bridge when a squad of middle-aged men were snapped screaming abuse at Raheem Sterling. But Chelsea were swift to track them down and deal with them. The Bulgarians less so, one suspects, with the idiots from Monday night.