Japan’s progression from 2015 miracle workers to 2019 giant slayers is a success story that should be celebrated, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
When Japan stunned the Springboks at the 2015 showpiece tournament, the rugby world was knocked off its axis. Then coach Heyneke Meyer fronted up at the post-match media conference looking like he had seen a ghost.
The reaction back in South Africa was catastrophic. How on earth could the mighty Boks lose to a ‘minnow’ rugby nation like Japan?! It was seen as an anomaly, an abomination, a once-off shock.
In the aftermath, a film duly named the Miracle of Brighton was produced. Indeed, that’s how it was viewed: a miracle result.
In many ways, that result is said to have truly put rugby on the map for Japan. The game has taken off in the country, and although the Sunwolves’ addition to Vodacom Super Rugby has not been particularly successful, it did expose some Japanese players to the weekly rigours of high-intensity rugby.
Over the last few years, Japan have gradually progressed as a rugby nation, rising now to a highest-ever ranking of eighth.
When the Brave Blossoms claimed a stunning win over Ireland on 28 September at this World Cup, the rugby fraternity reacted with more adulation than incredulity. Japan’s success over a team ranked No 1 before the tournament kicked off was no longer seen as a miracle.
Most who watched that game would have recognised just how far Japan has come, and the fact of the matter is that they were the better side for the majority of that encounter.
In the opening game of this World Cup, the host nation comfortably overcame Russia and then backed up their Ireland success with another highly impressive 38-19 victory over Samoa.
Japan are no longer a team that are just threatening with ball in hand. The sound structure to their overall game is testimony to increased professionalism, while their set-piece and defensive abilities cannot be seen as a major weakness anymore.
In short, Japan are the real deal!
What’s undoubtedly also working in their favour is a raucous home crowd that seems to be serving as Japan’s 16th player. The energy at the stadiums has been off the charts, and it’s gone to another level when the Brave Blossoms have been in full flow.
It’s undoubtedly part of the reason why the Springboks have acknowledged that they would be wary of facing the hosts in a quite probable World Cup quarter-final.
Japan should be favourites to overcome Scotland this Sunday, but even if the game is called off due to inclement weather (with each team then receiving two log points), they would still finish top of Pool A.
That would set up a ‘Miracle of Brighton’ rematch with the Springboks, and the atmosphere around Japan’s first-ever quarter-final would undoubtedly be an occasion for the ages.
The Boks will know if they are even slightly off their game they will be punished by a confident Japan side, who would look to feed off the energy of their fans if they manage to make a strong start to proceedings.
Of course, the Springboks would still surely rather face Japan over Ireland in the quarter-finals, but they will be taking nothing for granted one way or another.
The Brave Blossoms of 2019 are a very different beast to the team of 2015, and all credit to them for this inspiring progression.
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