A Letter from Chiba: 'One major plus is that the Ireland players can walk the streets freely without being stopped'

Ireland’s first few days in Japan have quite literally felt like the calm before the storm.

Having avoided the worst of Typhoon Faxai, which battered the country last week, there are already fears that a 16th typhoon of the season is rapidly making its way towards the island.

Ireland landed in Tokyo last Thursday before making their way to Chiba, a city which is located approximately 40km from the capital.

Some teams such as the All Blacks have opted to base themselves right in the heart of Tokyo, but Ireland have taken a very different approach.

Comparisons to the ill-fated time spent in Bordeaux at the disastrous 2007 World Cup are wide of the mark and while Chiba isn’t exactly a hive of activity either, there is enough going on to not feel like you are totally in the wilderness.

There is a convention centre located right behind the team hotel, which was also used by the Ireland football team ahead of their 3-0 win over Saudi Arabia at the 2002 World Cup.

A video gaming conference was held at the centre over the weekend and the thousands of people who flocked to Chiba told you everything you needed to know about how popular the gaming culture is in this part of world.

Away from the Fortnite fanatics, a large shopping centre across the road from the hotel offers the players a chance to step out of the bubble in total anonymity.

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On Sunday, the squad were given a day off and many of the players took the chance to jump on a train and make the hour long journey into Tokyo.

There are many disadvantages to being this far away from the comforts of home, but one major plus is that the players can walk the streets freely without being stopped. The same cannot be said for sumo wrestlers who are super-stars around here.

Rugby remains a minority sport and for the most part in Chiba, you wouldn’t really know that the start of the World Cup is now just four days away.

Japan’s sumo wrestling championships are currently being held in Tokyo at the moment and that’s what dominates the back pages of the newspapers. 

Figure skating, baseball and marathon running are also all given precedence with four paragraphs reserved for rugby as Joe Schmidt’s views on Japan, who Ireland will take on in their second game, make the cut. 

Baseball is huge in Chiba and the Lotte Marines’ (local team) stadium is located a stone’s throw from the team hotel. Baseball pitches are dotted around the city, which gives you an idea of how popular the American sport is.

Although World Cup fever might not fully kick in until this weekend, the local presence at the press conference on Sunday had been encouraging before a noticeable drop off at today’s media event. 

On Sunday, the Japanese journalists took the opportunity to ask Rory Best about Brexit and its implications for Ireland, while Schmidt was quizzed on why he left Devin Toner (something of a cult hero over here) out of his squad.

After a day off yesterday, it was straight back to business this morning with Ireland being put through a gym session before hitting the pitch in the rain as preparations for Scotland really ramp up.

Schmidt’s men are training at Ichihara Suporeka Park, which takes approximately 45 minutes to reach from the team hotel.

The facility was opened in 2005 and was initially used for high school sports meetings before it was given more national prominence.

The venue has since held Japanese J-League (football) pre-season games, while the Brave Blossoms have also spent time training there.

“The training facilities are superb, they’ve done a great job and the quality of the pitch surface,” Schmidt said of the venue.

“The actual temporary gym they’ve put up is fit for purpose, so no complaints there.

“It took us 45 minutes to get to the training venue but, no matter where you are, that’s going to be part of the equation. It means you make maximum use of those training windows because it is a little bit of a strenuous journey to get to them.”

Ireland will pack their bags on Wednesday and head for Yokohama, where they will take on Scotland on Sunday.

It does beg the question why they bothered coming to Chiba in the first place, but it is likely that World Rugby wanted to base teams across the country as much as possible, in order to spread the game far and wide. 

In comparison to Ireland’s relative quietness in Chiba where two Japanese fans with Ireland gear waited for them on their return from training, Wales held an open session in Kitakyushu today, and 15,000 local fans queued for three hours prior to the doors opening. 

Kitakyushu is near Fukuoka, where Schmidt’s side will take on Samoa in their final pool game, so one imagines that once they leave Chiba, the focus on them will ramp up considerably.

“We came here because we thought we’d be a little bit out of the way,” Schmidt explained.

“We like the fact it was quite open and it was an opportunity to sort of transition a little bit before we go right into the heart of where the games are going to be played in Yokohama.”

As an introduction to Japan, Chiba is a world away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo.

Not that Schmidt is complaining mind you, because the low-key build up hidden from the bright lights is exactly what the Ireland boss wants before the serious business begins on Sunday.  

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