By Neil Smith in Tokyo
The two teams were warming up at their respective ends of the pitch, far apart, but the two head coaches could be seen standing together at the halfway line engaged in a long, and clearly good-natured, discussion.
The Irish – on the turf and in the stands
My work as a member of the ground staff started with checking the turf after the Irish team finished their warm-up and I was not impressed at the 4~5 bits of chewing gum players had spat out onto the turf during or after their warm-up. It struck me as a sign of disrespect for the turf on which they would be attempting to break the Irish quarter-final jinx, and some part of me was hoping the ABs would teach them a lesson about respect.
You would not have realized from the television coverage just how loud the Irish fans’ singing during the haka was but at ground level, you could not hear the haka at all. There was no disrespect, just the fans accepting the challenge of the haka the best way they could. It was spine-tingling, goose bump-inducing, and suggested a contest for the ages.
Unstoppable All Black power and intensity
Kieran Read and his men had other ideas. We could feel the power and intensity of the All Blacks’ tackles, see close-up the pace at which the ABs were operating, sense how Ireland was struggling to come to terms with the ABs, and watch the body language of the Irish.
We were under strict instructions from World Rugby not to stand at any time unless we were about to enter the pitch to carry out running repairs and you can imagine how frustrating it was not to be able to leap up in joy at the play of the ABs.
The Irish fans broke out into song on a regular basis, hoping to inspire their team, but nothing could break the intense focus of the ABs tonight. We could see how the Irish forwards were catching the ball flat-footed, only to be smashed back time and time again, and we could feel the vigour gradually draining, not only from the fans’ singing but also from the players.
Whatever they attempted, there were 2-3 ABs there to stop them, and I finally understood why the opposition occasionally commented that there seemed to be more than 15 men in black out there.
A little Irish girl has the last word
Out on the pitch after the match finished as we started preparing the turf for the Japan vs South Africa quarter final the next day, I had the chance to have a quick chat to Peter O’Mahoney, the Irish blindside flanker.
He was naturally not looking very happy but I’ll give the last word to his daughter, a cute lass perched on his shoulders. I asked her how she was enjoying her trip to Japan.
“I’ve having a great holiday.”
(Neil Smith lives in Japan and has been a pioneer in getting local authorities and schools in his area to sow grass on sports grounds and in public spaces.)