From our man in Japan, Neil Smith
The lead up to the first match
The pitch was my winner on the night. Knowing all the trials and tribulations the head groundkeeper had gone through in the build-up to RWC 2019, and understanding that rugby fans the world over would be watching the opening match, it was hard not to feel the tension.
Fans started to file in from 3 p.m., a full three and a half hours ahead of the opening ceremony, almost all wearing the red and white stripes of the Brave Blossoms, and the noise level rose steadily till we could hardly hear instructions from the head groundkeeper. A short but very impressive opening ceremony, which included NZ’s favourite son Richie McCaw yet again starring at a World Cup, had the crowd creating more noise than I have ever heard at a sporting event.
The ground crew sprung into action, walking across the sacred turf to pick up anything dropped during the opening ceremony, the teams came out for the warm up, again to tumultuous cheers from the crowd. One more sweep of the ground, the national anthems sung, and the countdown to kickoff.
The Blossoms hit hard early
It was clear that Japan were feeling the pressure of the opening match of the first ever World Cup in Asia and the weight of the expectations of a nation. High balls were dropped, passes did not go to hand, and then Russia, totally free of any such expectations, scored first from the second charge down of the match.
The Russian tackling was brutally hard and Japan could not find any rhythm to their game. The crowd lost its voice.
The Japanese pick up the pace and win through
As the Japanese fifteen slowly adjusted to the pace of the game, they started to exert significant pressure on Russia, missing a couple of tries by inches. Japan had more pace in the backs and they started to test Russia it wide with increasing success. The tries did come and speedy right winger Kotaro Matsushima scored three. Japan eventually won by 20 points, but this was far less than the pre-game forecasts.
The Russian players struggled with the heat later in the game but led by their open side flanker, my pick as the best of the Russians, never gave up and even late in the game were pressing in the Japanese try-line, unfortunately without success.
The ground crew were out on the field as soon as the interviews were finished and the last of the fans to leave would have seen the crew once more picking up bits of grass torn up by the spikes while a senior member of the team was mowing the grass, already thinking of the 4:15 p.m. kickoff in the France vs Argentina match on Saturday.
Relief and pride for the local fans
The overwhelming feeling among fans was pride in a successful start to the World Cup and a strong dose of relief that their team had ground out a bonus point win. Tougher games lie ahead for Japan but the first major hurdle had been negotiated.
Your on-the-ground reporter was in the stand Saturday night watching the All Blacks open their tournament against the Springboks.
(Neil Smith is a permanent resident in Japan and has been a pioneer in getting local authorities to convert kindergarten and school grounds, parks and sports grounds from dirt to grass.)