Duncan Smith reflects on a Rugby World Cup like no other

Writing just a couple of 
hours after South Africa lifted the Webb Ellis Trophy for the third time in their history, it will take a bit more time to assess where the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan will stand in the history of the game.

Japan's Isileli Nakajima celebrates his side's thrilling 28-21 victory over Scotland in Yokohama. Picture: David Davies/PA Wire.
Japan's Isileli Nakajima celebrates his side's thrilling 28-21 victory over Scotland in Yokohama. Picture: David Davies/PA Wire.

One thing is certain. It was like none of the previous editions of a tournament that was first staged in 1987.

There were controversies which will leave a lingering stain, issues which remain unresolved and ongoing, and the memory of a devastating natural disaster which ripped a hole in the heart of the event and, more importantly, caused great suffering to the wonderful host nation.

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Japan, though, certainly rose magnificently to the occasion and can be proud of what it achieved both on and off the field of play. The first Asian country, and first from outside the traditional powerhouses of rugby, to host the quadrennial global extravaganza, the Japanese threw themselves into it all with the characteristic efficiency and civility you would expect from this proud nation.

For the first time ever, however, not every match at the tournament was completed, which will forever mean an asterisk is placed next to Japan 2019. Not the hosts’ fault, of course, but questions will remain as to why the organisers saw fit to schedule the event in typhoon season, which ended up with three pool matches – England v France, New Zealand v Italy and Namibia v Canada – voided as 0-0 draws. Scotland’s crunch final Pool A
match came close to suffering the same fate but went ahead to become one of the iconic moments in the history of the tournament as the Brave Blossoms scored an emotional and historic 28-21 win to reach the quarter-finals and send the Scots home early.

For Scotland, the World Cup can only be viewed as a failure. Labelled the best-prepared national squad to take part in the tournament it ended with an exit at the pool stage for only the second time and the embarrassment of being the first union to be hit with a misconduct charge for comments made by chief executive Mark Dodson in the fraught lead-up to the Japan match in Yokohama.

The SRU will continue to fight its corner on this one but whatever happens it cannot overshadow the disappointment of failures on the pitch which have put head coach Gregor Townsend under pressure.

An inept opening display against Ireland put the team on the back foot from the get-go and rallying victories over Samoa and Russia were always viewed through the prism of the quality of the opposition.

Japan’s landmark win over Ireland narrowed the Scots’ path to the quarter-finals and, on an electrically-charged evening following the ferocious impact of Super Typhoon Hagibis, they fell short when it mattered.

Townsend, pictured inset, will be given more time but knows a moderate or poor Six Nations will likely see his time as head coach come to an end. It is worth noting, though, that the former Glasgow boss does have the best record of any national coach in the professional era.

With the Scots on an early flight home it was left to the big boys and the wildcard hosts to see out the business end. Japan’s fairytale was ended by a ruthless and professional showing by a Springboks side who continued to make quiet progress under the radar.

England laid down their increasingly improving status as genuine contenders with a thumping of Australia, Wales sneaked past France and the All Blacks exposed as being past their best an Irish team who arrived as world No 1 – which makes Scotland’s opening defeat all the more disappointing.

The feeling that name of Eddie Jones’ England might be on the cup continued in the last-four with a staggeringly impressive dismantling of the champions, with the sensational Maro Itoje producing one of the greatest individual displays in the tournament’s history.

South Africa ground past Wales to end Warren Gatland’s stellar time in charge of the principality but did they have enough to hold off what seemed an inevitable English charge to a second world crown?

Of course, only a fool would write off a proud rugby nation like South Africa and the beauty of sport is that, when all the analysis and talking is done, it is in the competitors’ hands to seize any moment.

Japan did it against Scotland with a sublime half-hour period in the second quarter and start of the second half in Yokohama and the Boks did it at the same stadium in the final. Simply too good on the night, leaving England with no room for complaint.

It’s difficult to make a case for the Springboks being the best side in the tournament but they are worthy world champions, with Scotland set to face them in summer Tests next year, although a lot lies ahead before that. Certainly, the sight of South Africa’s first black captain Siya Kolisi hoisting the trophy gave the tournament a fittingly iconic ending.

On a personal note, for all its challenges and occasionally unnerving moments, covering Japan 2019 will go down as one of the most unforgettable few weeks of my life and not just in a professional sense.

I am extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity and the memories will last forever. The sights, sounds and tastes of this incredible country are impossible to forget.

The thing that lingers most as I try to readjust to homelife after such a vivid and intense experience is the incredible politeness, respect and generosity of our hosts. And the jaw-dropping efficiency of how everything works like clockwork in what is often dense urban environments which make London or Paris seem like sleepy villages.

When I flew out in mid-September my feeling was this could well be a once-in-a-lifetime trip. As I boarded the flight back, on the very day new Emperor Naruhito ascended to the throne, I knew I would, if lucky enough, certainly strive to return one day.

Arigato Japan. You were simply magnificent.