Wednesday 23 October 2019

Brendan O'Connor: 'The underdogs of war'

Japan's Kenki Fukuoka scores a try. Photo: Jae Hong/AP Photo
Japan's Kenki Fukuoka scores a try. Photo: Jae Hong/AP Photo
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

After Scotland folded last weekend we were booking our holidays for the Rugby World Cup final. At the very least, we were looking to the quarter-finals. Just a few bits of housekeeping to be looked after in the meantime. Like Japan. While real rugby fans will have known that Japan are not to be underestimated, to the rest of us, they seemed to pose no real threat.

We were in a kind of 'Italia 90/Everyone loves the Irish' mindset. There were mutterings that the Ireland match was the one Japan had targeted, but mainly it was all stereotypes here. Lovely people, love the Irish, hi-tech toilets, would give us a good game but would be too polite to beat us. And shure most of the Japanese were supporting Ireland anyway. Everyone loves us and our underdog ways.

But of course we weren't underdogs. We came into the match as the second top rated team in the world. And what we realised as Japan stunned us and the world yesterday is that they're not all Hello Kitty, wacky game shows, economic stagnation, excessive formality and whatever other stereotypes we had. Japan is, as Donald Trump has pointed out, a warrior nation. And yesterday's match took on the character of a mythic battle between two warrior tribes.

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But now Ireland digs even deeper into our own myths and our own national character. After the match, Rory Best gave credit to the Japanese performance and simply said that Ireland need to get better. In general, there was almost a grudging admiration here for this unlikely team who came from left field to shock the world and rock the World Cup. It was a very Irish thing to do. And their delight at the sheer unlikeliness of it all seemed very Irish too. But Best was moving on from it quickly too, and now is when Ireland get to demonstrate the quality that perhaps defines us most. Resilience, bouncebackability.

This country has been through some awful times, but we never let it beat us. Oppression, Troubles, economic annihilation, we fought back and recovered from it all. Right now, as our next-door neighbour threatens to implode and drag us down with them, we keep fighting.

Our rugby team can often provide some of the last great unabashed demonstrations of the best of Irishness - stoicism, a refusal to say die, a determination to keep running into brick walls even if the hope of finding a hole there seems deluded. And right now, back in their comfort zone as underdogs, we hope they'll demonstrate that great Irish ability, when you get a knock, to walk away, regroup, get your head together again, and bloody- mindedly set out to prove everyone wrong. Just a bit of housekeeping with Russia and Samoa to get out of the way first, eh?

Sunday Independent

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