Much as we admired Japan’s magnificent 19-12 Rugby World Cup win against Ireland on Sunday, it has put the cat among the pigeons with the All Blacks likely to face the 2018 Six Nations champion Irish in the quarter-finals.
Before that upset, we thought New Zealand’s most likely quarter-final opponent would be Scotland who Ireland had thrashed.
Having beaten the All Blacks twice in their last three attempts, Ireland, with their strong forwards, superb defence and tactical kicking halves, will be that much tougher knowing they will need a razor-sharp resolve on par with Japan’s.
Like the remaining quarter-finals, it will have all the drama of a do-or-die classic. By then NZ fans can only hope their scrum improves on their brittle first-up showing against the powerful Springboks although their backs should be sharper.
Meanwhile, with games to come against Samoa and Scotland, Japan are now favoured to emerge winners of Pool A with the prospect of facing South Africa in their quarter-final.
That would represent a tough challenge but Japan’s former Highlanders mentors, Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown, would relish it. They will also know it would enhance their chances of becoming All Black selectors next year upon Steve Hansen’s retirement.
With Scott Robertson and Ian Foster also in the mix, the competition will be fierce and will need to be if Dave Rennie becomes Australia’s head coach upon replacing Michael Cheika.
Japan’s thrilling win against Ireland is almost on par with their 2015 World Cup opening win against South Africa and has given the host nation something really exciting to cheer about.
So much for the old belief that Asians were inscrutable and that “east is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet”.
When it comes to cheering on their own – and the All Blacks – the Japanese can be ecstatic. While I initially thought taking the Rugby World Cup away from the traditional rugby nations was a mistake, it is proving to be a masterstroke.
Meanwhile joining the All Blacks versus Boks and Japan versus Ireland matches for sheer excitement and drama was Six Nations champion Wales’ 29-25 thriller against Australia.
With Wales playing to their strengths and kicking accurately to lead 23-8 at halftime, the Wallabies staged a splendid second-half comeback to win the second half 17-6 thanks largely to the injection of first-five Matt To’omua off the bench for Bernard Foley.
Both are good value but To’omua adds that little bit more thrust to the attack just as England’s George Ford does compared with Owen Farrell before the latter was moved to second-five.
Meanwhile the All Blacks have the luxury of giving all their players a run against minnows Canada, Namibia and Italy although Italy will have gained confidence from winning their first two, scoring 95 points and conceding 29 against Canada and Namibia respectively.
Of special interest will be the form of Rieko Ioane who has a battle on his hands to regain his left-wing berth against the big boys ahead of a sharp George Bridge.
On the Mitre 10 home front, last year’s premier champions Auckland are looking anything but having been thrashed 40-0 by unbeaten Tasman.
Also notable was Otago’s successful 45- 35 Ranfurly Shield defence against Waikato’s attempt to win it back after losing it last year.
Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer