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Big in Japan: Ireland get warm welcome as Sexton hones in on Scotland

Joe Schmidt’s men were officially welcomed to the Rugby World Cup today.

AS PART OF Ireland’s official World Cup welcome ceremony in Chiba today, captain Rory Best was invited on stage to colour in the eye of a Daruma doll.

The Daruma doll - which apparently honours the founder of the Zen tradition of Buddhism - at the heart of a Japanese tradition that prompts the protagonist to decorate one eye when they start an important new task.

The second eye gets coloured in when that task is completed.

joji-koide-with-rory-best Rory Best on stage at Ireland's welcoming ceremony. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Maybe Best had other things on his mind, but the task he and his Ireland squad have in Japan is clear, even if they won’t openly state they are here to come away with a winner’s medal to add to the participation medal they received at today’s ceremony, along with official World Cup caps.

That the marker Best was handed this afternoon didn’t actually work and needed to be fixed during a slightly awkward 30 seconds on stage is hopefully not an ill omen.

With Joe Schmidt’s entire squad and backroom staff smartly suited and booted for the proceedings, there was music, dancing, a couple of speeches, and promises from the mayor of Ichihara City – where Ireland train for the next few days – that the region is fully behind them, and also that the grass on their training pitch is of the highest quality.

Best fired out a few lines in Japanese, the squad posed for photos, and then they headed back to their hotel in Chiba, which is 35km east of Tokyo in a nondescript area that is far from the postcard image of the bright lights of the Japanese capital. 

Ireland will have a low-key introduction to life in Japan here, having arrived yesterday and with their first proper training session to come tomorrow. 

Ireland aren’t in Japan to be tourists, of course, rather to get down to the serious business of preparing to take on Scotland in Yokohama on 22 September. Schmidt’s men will move down to Yokohama on Tuesday but it’s full steam ahead in Chiba in the coming days.

Pausing between answers to allow for translation into Japanese, Ireland out-half Johnny Sexton underlined as much when the welcome ceremony had concluded.

“We had a few days off before we left, we got to spend some time with our families before being away for a long time, so we had that switch-off time,” said Sexton.

“Now we’re about work and preparing, so there won’t be too much downtime.”

peter-omahony-takes-a-picture-with-fans-before-the-opening-ceremony Peter O'Mahony takes a selfie with some Japanese supporters. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Sexton, who was previously in Japan as a 16-year-old schoolboy on a tour with St Mary’s College, certainly came across as focused, while insisting that Ireland haven’t spoken amongst themselves about winning this World Cup.

“As long as I’ve played any sport, you want to win every competition you are in,” said Sexton. “Scotland are the biggest challenge and then Japan. We’ll work our way through the tournament like that.”

The 34-year-old, who is feeling “physically very good,” is confident that Ireland’s squad is in better shape this time around compared to 2015 – when injuries to himself and other key players cost Schmidt’s side dearly in their quarter-final defeat to Argentina.

“The last two World Cups I was involved in, we had a strong squad as well, particularly in 2011,” said Sexton.

“Maybe in 2015, we didn’t have that depth and we maybe used the same team for a couple of years going into that tournament and maybe that cost us in the end.

“We also got very unlucky with injuries. This squad, due to injuries but also Joe rotating through a lot of the Six Nations games last year, we have built that depth in certain positions.

“Hopefully, we don’t have to go to it too often, hopefully we get a little more luck with injuries in this World Cup, but we’re very confident that with the 31 here, everyone is competing for a starting spot.”

Sexton is keen for Ireland to pay respect to all of their pool opponents before having any thoughts about knock-out games, and Schmidt will ramp the pressure up as he gets his players onto the training pitch at Ichihara Suporeku Park tomorrow.

jonathan-sexton-signs-autographs-for-fans-before-the-ceremony Ireland arrive at Mihama Bunka Hall. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Sexton did say that Ireland will “embrace” the culture in Japan and make the most of being in a unique place, but the sense is that any non-rugby fun might have to wait for their stops in cities like Yokohama, Kobe, and Fukuoka. 

Team manager Paul Deane, a former Ireland out-half himself, noted that things are very different now to when he toured Japan as a player in 1985.

“It was after we won the Triple Crown, but that was the amateur days. It’s nothing like what it is today.

“Today is fully professional, very well-organised, and we’ve got a clear focus. In ’85, it was more like a holiday.

“It was great, we saw great places and met loads of people, it was fun. It’s not as good with the guys here today because it’s more focused and professional.” 

All eyes on Scotland.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella  / Reports from Chiba

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