Rugby World Cup sweeps into Asia for first time on a sea of red and white

There was no shortage of passion on show for the host nation at the opening match of the Rugby World Cup. Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

TOKYO -- It may have been a slow burn earlier in the week, but any thought that the Rugby World Cup's first foray into Asia wouldn't be embraced by the people of Japan was blown away in a brilliant sea of red and white on Friday night.

It had started earlier in the day. With the turn of every corner about the Shinjuku area of Tokyo, the Brave Blossoms jerseys became more prominent. At the tournament megastore just across from Shinjuku station, they were sold out of the national team's jersey. When you made your way to Tokyo Stadium later that day, it wasn't hard to see why.

The Welsh and Scotland kits had also been big sellers, ESPN was told, while the sight of Springboks, All Blacks and Ireland kit was also common with those teams to take to the field over the weekend, so too the berets of the French who serenaded the evening peak-hour commuters with a rendition of "La Marseillaise."

The true spirit of tournament sport was on show as fans streamed up from Tobitakyu Station to the Tokyo Stadium. It may not be the walk from Twickenham Station to the home of English rugby, the opening venue four years ago, but what it lacked in backyard barbecues it made up for in cans of beer for sale and the sight of the stadium at last completely revealing itself at the top of a flight of stairs.

Russian fans had made the trip, probably not with any great expectation, yet they travelled in families and wore the names of their clubs from back home proudly.

A quite breathtaking opening ceremony got underway after the Tokyo autumn sun had disappeared to leave almost perfect playing conditions. But the 50,000-strong crowd was first treated to a taste of Japanese culture amid the backdrop of a mock Mount Fuji bang-smack in the middle of the field. Some of the lasting images from the previous eight tournaments were beamed onto the temporary landscape before All Blacks great Richie McCaw suddenly appeared with the Webb Ellis Cup in hand.

The two-time World Cup winning captain marched to the sideline to leave the trophy in pride of place and signal the start of a six-week journey that will reveal the tournament's ninth champion.

Will it be three straight for the All Blacks? Can the Wallabies or Springboks win the World Cup for a third time, or will a Northern Hemisphere nation be crowned champions for only the second occasion? England, Wales and Ireland all have valid claims and will begin their campaigns over the next few days.

But this night was all about the hosts.

The lights fell dark just before the players marched down the tunnel for the first of the tournament's 48 games; when they were switched back on, the crowd roared and the brilliant red and white collage's beauty truly exploded the senses. You could have been forgiven for thinking you'd stumbled into a Where's Wally? convention.

Japan captain Michael Leitch led his team on one final sprint to the goalposts, which brought one last roar just before kick-off. But those cheers were soon replaced by a collective gasp as referee Nigel Owens blew the whistle for kick-off and the Russians immediately went onto the attack. Given the nature of the occasion, it shouldn't have been any surprise that Japan dropped the kick-off.

But the drama didn't stop there. After the hosts had cleared their lines, the Russians booted the ball high into the Tokyo air, and when the Japanese back-three failed to field it, Kirill Golosnitskiy happily pounced on the loose ball to score the opening try of the tournament after just five minutes. That wasn't how the script was supposed to go.

Thankfully for the tens of thousands watching inside the ground and millions more on television, the Japanese wouldn't have to wait long for their team to deliver a response. After some smart kicking and swift ball movement inside the Russian 22, winger Kotaro Matsushima cruised in out wide to send Tokyo Stadium completely and utterly bonkers.

There were groans and cheers in almost equal measure for much of the remainder of the first half as the Brave Blossoms mixed the sublime with the silly and Russia waited for those simple mistakes and looked to sting their hosts on the counter, of which they very nearly did. Twice.

It was helter-skelter stuff. But unlike other tournament openers, it was proving entirely enjoyable. The skill level clearly wasn't that of two Tier 1 nations going head-to-head and cool heads were lacking, but this was a Rugby World Cup opener with a difference. And it wasn't even halftime.

Five minutes out from the break Matsushima looked to have got himself a double as he ran onto a basketball-style pass from lock James Moore, but after going upstairs to check with the television match official, referee Owens ruled the winger had knocked on. It was not a decision that pleased the locals, and the boos rang out as loudly as any earlier cheer as a result.

But the red-and-white-clad support crew would at last be able to release a significant amount of pent-up emotional energy as their team showed the necessary patience to build phases inside the Russian 22, and Matsushima this time made no mistake when completing the movement on the overlap on the stroke of halftime.

It was a far more settled start to the second stanza. Yu Tamura's penalty just four minutes upon the resumption was just what the Brave Blossoms needed, as the signs that their superior fitness, and coach Jamie Joseph's camps earlier in the year, would start to pay dividends.

And so it did. When Pieter Labuschagne stripped the ball clean from a Russian ball-carrier he had 50 metres to run to the tryline. Still, the South African-born back-rower had the pace to avoid the cover defence and score Japan's third try. Again, the roar was deafening.

Japan were forced into a rare period of defence for the next 10 minutes as Russia went within inches of scoring but instead had to settle for a penalty goal.

Any thought of a shock Russian comeback was put to bed 11 minutes out from fulltime as the visitors gifted the Blossoms possession with what may go down as the worst kick of the tournament, even though it was at the time just 69 minutes old. The hosts quickly moved the ball to the right touchline and Matsushima showed a clean pair of heels to complete his hat-trick.

Cue another enormous roar.

When Owens blew his whistle for fulltime, Japan had triumphed 30-10. It was not perhaps the margin many had predicted, and clearly not the quality of rugby on which the tournament will hang its hat, but it was indeed the atmosphere World Rugby so dearly will have craved and the response from the supporters they had been sweating on.