Japan enjoyed a fairytale World Cup campaign at their home tournament, qualifying for the playoffs for the first time, writes RICHARD FREEMAN.
The tradition of bowing (ojigi) is ingrained in Japanese culture. It is predominantly used to communicate respect, a way to greet people, apologise, and to say thank you, as the players of all 20 teams at the Rugby World Cup did on a regular basis.
But for the originator of the catchphrase of the tournament – ‘Once in a Lifetime’ – the western usage of bow (as in acknowledging applause) is perhaps more appropriate.
For if ever an event lived up to the hype, it was this.
On the field we saw some sublime rugby with hosts Japan to the fore, Uruguay providing an upset and England producing one of the greatest Test-match performances in the semi-finals.
Off the field we have seen support like never seen in this country before, not just for the Brave Blossoms – the noise during the wins over Ireland and Scotland was out of this world – but when communities started adopting other sides.
Just before the tournament started the All Blacks looked pretty chuffed when 7,000 turned up to their training session at Kashiwa. The following day 15,000 watched Wales in Kitakyushu.
And then there were sadly, the events that could only be controlled by Mother Nature: Typhoon Hagibis forced the cancellation of three games.
‘World Rugby and the Japan Rugby 2019 Organising Committee have taken the difficult, but right decision to cancel matches in the affected areas on safety grounds,’ said tournament director Alan Gilpin.
Three weeks earlier, the hosts came into the tournament on the back of a big defeat at the hands of the Springboks. And the nervous display shown against the two-time world champions was on view at Tokyo Stadium when the hosts gave up a try in the opening four minutes against Russia before a hat-trick to Pretoria-born Kotaro Matsushima saw them home.
‘You can’t train for a game like that,’ said head coach Jamie Joseph. ‘They’ve been waiting so long. We said before the game, it is all about expectation … you realise just how much pressure there is on the guys and we’re proud of the way they came through.’
Next up was Ireland, who had started the tournament as the No 1 team in the world rankings and had dismantled Scotland on the opening weekend. But Japan, who sprung a surprise by starting with Michael Leitch on the bench, were confident an upset was on the cards
‘In terms of our bench, we’ve got to have an impact,’ Joseph said. ‘If we’re going to be in a position to win the match it’s going to come down to the last five or 10 minutes, and we’ll need clear leadership.’
Following a national anthem never heard before in terms of passion and amid a wall of noise, Japan’s ability to retain possession saw them home.
‘Words fail me. It’s amazing. On home soil. Against the No 1 team in the world,’ said Luke Thompson, playing in his fourth World Cup for Japan. ‘We played to our potential, and did exactly what we practised to combat the Irish game. We played with so much heart. It was just small things, nothing special. We played with heart and stuck to the gameplan.’
The Brave Blossoms’ third game was against Samoa, a side that until recent years they had always struggled against. The big talk in the week leading up to the game was whether securing a bonus point was essential, given how tight Pool A was shaping up to be. The response from the Japan camp was consistent.
‘We need to make sure we win the game. Once we have put ourselves in that position, we can think about a bonus point.’
And that is exactly how things panned out, helped by a somewhat bizarre ending. A somewhat nervy display finished with Matsushima crossing for Japan’s fourth try in the 84th minute after Samoa had opted for a scrum on their own line rather than take a free kick.
The move backfired when they were then penalised for a crooked feed and from the resulting scrum, Matsushima sprinted over.
‘That was a never-say-die attitude,’ Joseph reflected as a historic playoff qualification loomed. ‘We knew that was going to be a real physical battle, and Samoa never let us down. They were quite impressive, particularly because they played a Test four days ago.’
The tournament at this stage had run fairly smoothly, despite some issues regarding crowd control in Sapporo on the opening weekend and some huge lines for food that eventually saw the organising committee lift the ban on fans bringing their own.
The final week of pool play, however, was anything but smooth. With Typhoon Hagibis approaching an emergency press briefing was announced for 10 October. Two games set for the Saturday in Toyota and Tokyo were called off, and a third cancelled on Sunday morning as Hagibis wreaked havoc on Kamaishi.
‘It would be grossly irresponsible to leave teams, fans, volunteers and other tournament personnel exposed during what is predicted to be a severe typhoon,’ Gilpin said. Debate raged with many asking why World Rugby’s contingency plans did not allow for games to be postponed.
The Scottish Rugby Union were particularly incensed as a cancellation of their game with Japan, which was still under doubt, would have seen the Scots eliminated. ‘It is important we treat all matches consistently and fairly. We won’t treat that match, if it can’t be played, any differently to other matches,’ was Gilpin’s response.
Fortunately, the impact of the typhoon on Yokohama was not as bad as the rest of the country and following an amazing clean-up by organisers, the game went ahead.
Spurred on by another passionate crowd – and the whole country hoping for some good news – the Brave Blossoms were untouchable in the first half. In the second, they dug deep and defended well to ensure they did what they had set out to do: reach the quarter-finals.
‘Before the match started, at the team hotel, the players knew how this game was more than just about us, that a lot of people suffered in the typhoon,’ said Leitch.
‘A lot of people did a lot of hard work to make this game happen. There were guys up late last night with sponges. We are grateful for the opportunity to inspire Japan and we showed that for 80 minutes tonight.’
The quarter-final against South Africa would eventually prove a game too far for Joseph and his team, despite a brave first half that saw the teams turn around with just two points separating them. But the second stanza was a different affair as the Springbok pack took control and wrestled Japan’s hopes away from them.
‘It’s unfortunate that Japan lost to a really strong South Africa, but reaching the last eight is like a dream,’ said rugby fan Masaaki Fuji.
A dream that has sparked even higher expectations.
‘Watching them beat Ireland, then Scotland it was more than I thought was possible. I want Japan to keep improving and win the World Cup one day,’ said Yokohama resident Musashi Oka.
It’s a view that would sit well with Leitch whose final words at the tournament were: ‘I’m not fulfilled. I am not satisfied but I am just proud to be a member of this team.’
‘Once in a lifetime’ off the field, but hopefully there is even more to come from the Brave Blossoms.
Despite Japan’s success, the future of rugby is still unclear, at the highest and lowest levels.
On 18 November a professional league, starting in 2021, is to be unveiled, but there are still many questions as to how this will work, especially as it appears there will be quite a bit of influence from overseas.
There have been calls for the Sunwolves not to be culled from Super Rugby, suggestions that Japan should join the Six Nations and more than a few people saying it is time they join the Rugby Championship.
The Japan Rugby Football Union has made no public statement about where it believes its future is, just as they have done nothing about rugby at grassroots level.
Former captain Toshiaki Hirose recently told The Guardian: ‘In 2015, we beat South Africa and Samoa and maybe then lots of Japanese kids wanted to play rugby, but they had no place to play. This year we have another chance so we have to take it.
‘We need to develop a professional domestic league; we also have to build up the grassroots, the schools, and clubs.’
And that, he said, starts with the Bukatsu system that forces Japanese children to specialise in one sport from a young age.
As Hirose points out, there are kids who have fallen in love with rugby but cannot switch to it because they are playing baseball.
The next few months are going to be very interesting, to say the least.
*This article originally appeared in the December issue of SA Rugby magazine, on sale now!