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How Irish eyes were opened on historic '05 Japan trip

New boys: Roger Wilson and Matt McCullough in the
grounds of Osaka-jo Castle in Osaka
New boys: Roger Wilson and Matt McCullough in the grounds of Osaka-jo Castle in Osaka
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

The first Irish traveller to Japan, or so the story goes, was all the way back in 1704 when a Waterford sailor named Robert Jansen was captured off the coast of Kyushu.

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During a lengthy period known as Sakoku, an isolationist foreign policy that essentially translates as closed country, the crew were promptly taken prisoner and held for some four months.

The welcome was warmer come 2005 as the Ireland rugby team arrived to play their first ever Tests on Asian soil.

A series between Japan and an Ireland XV had actually taken place back in 1985, when Ciaran Fitzgerald's Triple Crown-winners were at full strength but no caps were awarded. Despite the increased status given to the games some 20 years on, the eyes of the sporting world were decidedly elsewhere that summer, the Lions' series with the All Blacks grabbing the sole focus of all but the most devoted.

Running on: Ireland’s Simon Best on the attack in 2005 Test
Running on: Ireland’s Simon Best on the attack in 2005 Test

Indeed, due to events in New Zealand, Ireland travelled east without their coach, captain and 11 other frontline players as Eddie O'Sullivan, Brian O'Driscoll and co found themselves absent. Niall O'Donovan filled in as coach and David Humphreys as captain, with the shortfall in international experience filled by seven potential debutants.

It was an experimental squad therefore - one that also featured Mark McCall and Michael Bradley as young assistant coaches - that landed in Osaka, not that you'd have known it from the scene upon arrival, locals enthralled by the sight of the side who were just the second of the traditional Five Nations teams to have visited since the days when an uncapped Scotland line-up played in Tokyo in 1989.

Joe Miles, the former Ulster winger who served as team manager for the tour, recalled: "We were met by the Japanese Irish supporters' club.

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"They all had these customised t-shirts and little groups had adopted certain players and honed in on them for autographs and pictures. The funny thing was that they were coming up and asking permission if they could approach the players first.

"After that they essentially followed us around everywhere we went, every training session and then on up to Tokyo for the second Test. It was remarkable. Some of them had been to UCD or Trinity, and a few at Queen's as well, so they had that affinity with Ireland I suppose. Their enthusiasm for rugby took me by surprise, it really did."

Much as the uninitiated in Joe Schmidt's squad will spend a few days getting acclimatised to their new locale before kicking off next Sunday, Ireland's players 14 years ago were met with a place entirely different to anywhere they'd previously travelled.

Simon Best, who had his then-uncapped brother Rory and the rest of his family out to follow him along, said: "It was a really good time to be around the squad actually. When I made my debut it was on that first tour to Samoa and Tonga and then two years later we were away to Japan.

"Japan is such a unique country. It's a real fusion for the senses because you have those sort of indelible impressions of the neon lights of the big cities and then, travelling from Osaka to Tokyo on the bullet trains for the second Test, you see the real natural beauty of the countryside.

"It's cool, that contrast. There's a real serenity about the ancient and the historic places, the temples and things, and then there's this real craziness of the cities."

Humphreys leads the team out for the second Test against Japan
Humphreys leads the team out for the second Test against Japan

While every precaution was taken to make the adjustment as easy as possible, in the days before Google Maps the pitfalls were many.

There was a time when the squad felt they may never escape Osaka Station, the watching press pack deriving much amusement as the players strode confidently off in one direction only to emerge from another doorway on a different level like a bad Scooby Doo cartoon.

Many a taxi driver's local knowledge was questioned too when groups were dropped off directly in front of their requested bar or restaurant that they then couldn't find, Japanese property prices meaning such establishments are usually a few floors closer to the heavens.

Tommy Bowe, who as the youngest member of the squad had to carry mascot Broc, a sizeable stuffed dog, from pillar to post, remembered: "We couldn't even get into most bars anyway, they wouldn't let us in because we were bigger than all the bouncers.

"It was a great bunch though. Frankie Sheahan, Joey Miles, Michael Bradley, there was a great bunch of characters and then a good number of boys winning their first caps."

A down day was spent on a trip to Kyoto, wandering around the imperial capital's many temples and taking photos alongside Geishas. The fascination, though, was mutual.

"Roger Wilson and Leo Cullen were like celebrities out there," laughed Bowe. "I don't think most of the locals had ever seen anyone that tall and that blonde before, they were stopped so many times to get their pictures taken.

"It's such a different culture, something I'd never really experienced before. Even walking around Osaka and Tokyo, the sights and the sounds.

"They have these gambling machines almost but it's like ball bearings that they use and all you hear everywhere you go is this click, click, click, click. It's all just a really different experience. Nothing you've seen before.

Tourists: Trevor Hogan, Frankie Sheahan, Kevin Maggs and Tommy Bowe meet Geisha girls at the Kiyomizu Temple, Kyoto
Tourists: Trevor Hogan, Frankie Sheahan, Kevin Maggs and Tommy Bowe meet Geisha girls at the Kiyomizu Temple, Kyoto

"That's the sort of thing that people at home probably won't be able to gather from watching it on TV, just how different it is. It was a real eye-opener for me."

Rory Best and Tadhg Furlong have already had their eyes on some Wagyu beef when the side land in Kobe ahead of playing Russia in the third pool game, but back then there was no expense spared by the JRU when taking their guests out to eat.

Miles recalled: "The Japanese organisation themselves, they really couldn't do enough for us, they were superb. The liaison officer was a guy called Nakamura-san, a retired professor from Osaka University, and anything we needed from them, we just asked and it appeared.

"The Japanese took us out with the president of the IRFU to this real Asian-style restaurant, the type where they cut the meat in front of you and cook it in front of you. It was only when we got there we found out that the week before Bill Clinton had been taken there. They really pushed the boat out to show us what their country was about."

Come kick-off, though, the Japanese were out to spoil the trip, fully expecting Ireland's depleted state to open the door for a historic scalp despite their own horrid run of form that had seen them ship 100 points to Scotland and 98 against Wales the previous November.

Winning their first caps in the opening Test would be Ulster pair Roger Wilson and Matt McCullough, travelling snappers taking them to Osaka Castle for their pre-debut portraits, and despite the somewhat makeshift line-up, the visitors cruised to a 44-12 victory with Best, Bowe, Kevin Maggs and Frankie Sheahan all crossing for tries while Japan managed just four penalties.

Bowe said: "We did well to be fair because the heat was like nothing I ever experienced. It was a dry heat rather than what they'll have at this time of year but those photos where it looks like we've been in the rain, I wouldn't be surprised if that's just sweat. There were a few boys struggling for sure."

A week later, Japan did manage a pair of scores - two of Daisuke Ohata's world record 69 Test tries coming in the Chichibu Stadium - but Ireland ran in seven of their own, six of them converted by Humphreys in a 47-18 win.

Discounting referee Nigel Owens, who made his international bow in the first game, the most Tests played by any of the tour debutants was to be Bernard Jackman's nine while, by the time the players next took the field, the tremors of Tana Umaga, Brian O'Driscoll and the Lions' whitewash still rumbled on.

The tour has subsequently been rendered something of a historical footnote.

For better or worse, that won't be so this time around.

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