All Blacks great Sir John Kirwan said Sunday that watching Japan beat Italy 34-17 at a stadium that will host five Rugby World Cup games next year was “like a dream come true.”
The 53-year-old, who coached both Italy and Japan before returning to New Zealand, was among the announced crowd of 25,824 at Oita Bank Dome on Saturday, though most estimates put attendance at close to 36,000, as the city did its bit for World Cup fever by inviting a large number of schoolchildren to the game.
“When I think back to when I took over Japan (in 2006), we were 18th in the world and the crowds were well down,” he told Kyodo News. “Yesterday was a real test-match atmosphere and it was great to be a part of.”
Kirwan coached the Brave Blossoms (currently ranked 11th) at the 2007 and 2011 Rugby World Cups, having been in charge of the Azzurri (14th) at the 2003 tournament. And he was full of praise for the way the hosts played.
“Japan were well-drilled, and in Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown have two outstanding coaches. Their defense was also very tough,” he said.
A 1987 Rugby World Cup winner with the All Blacks and a key member of the presentation team that saw Japan win the right to host RWC 2019, Kirwan said Italy had left a couple of tries on the field in the first half, but the Brave Blossoms fully deserved their win.
“Their ball retention was good, they played at a good tempo and scored some great tries.”
The former wing, who played club rugby in both Italy (Treviso) and Japan (NEC), said he was somewhat disappointed with the performance of Conor O’Shea’s team.
“They weren’t fit enough and were outplayed on the day. It looked like they were going through a routine as there was no emotion.”
Kirwan — who is in Japan in his role as ambassador for DHL, one of the worldwide partners of the Rugby World Cup — said based on yesterday’s performance he was hopeful Japan could reach the knockout stages of next year’s tournament.
“I think they have a pretty good chance. Italy pushed Scotland all the way in the Six Nations and Japan outplayed them yesterday.”
In addition to Scotland, Japan will play Ireland, Russia and the winner of the qualification playoff — most likely Samoa — when the World Cup kicks off in Tokyo on Sept. 20 next year.