Week by glorious week, Japan’s players set new benchmarks for their country and their continent as they qualified from the pool phase as winners, moved into the top eight of the world rankings and competed in their first Rugby World Cup quarter-final.
These goals were recited almost like a magic spell by the Japan players and coaching staff and they achieved exactly that, winning fans all over the world with their relentless and imaginative displays en route.
They had risen to sixth in the world rankings before their only defeat at Asia’s first World Cup, at the hands of South Africa on Sunday, having started the tournament in 10th. Among their numerous achievements, they have also qualified for RWC 2023 in France.
Japan deserve nothing but respect, as Damian De Allende appears to acknowledge in congratulating skipper Michael Leitch, above right, after Sunday’s quarter-final.
Jamie Joseph was the architect of the hosts’ success, spending three years at the helm of the Brave Blossoms and combining that role for a year with coaching Japan’s Super Rugby side the Sunwolves.
He meticulously assembled the right coaching staff to focus on every aspect of the game, from fitness, tackles, scrums and attacking invention to mental preparation. He did enjoy one big advantage in his ambition to fulfil the motto of building “one team” as the squad spent 240 days in training camps this year alone.
The 49-year-old made a brave decision in leaving Leitch, his inspirational captain, on the bench after the opening win against Russia, “to get his rugby right” by minimising his responsibility. It clearly worked as the skipper’s performance after coming on against Ireland was monumental in that tournament-defining victory.
Second-row James Moore, flanker Pieter Labuschagne (bar an HIA check), centres Ryoto Nakamura and Timothy Lafaele and five-try winger Kotaro Matsushima played every minute of the campaign. Five of the 31-man squad were not even named on the bench, although their roles in Japan’s meticulous analysis of opponents were vital to their progress. Eventually that lack of squad depth might have cost them as they ran out of gas against South Africa
The Japan Rugby Football Union are in talks over a contract extension with Joseph, a former All Black and Brave Blossom.
— Asia Rugby (@asiarugby) October 19, 2019
PLAYER OF THE TOURNAMENT
Explosive winger Kenki Fukuoka – nicknamed Ferrari by his head coach – confirmed that his career in 15-man rugby for Japan is over after the South Africa game, as he is going to become a doctor. His four tries in the pool stage, especially the winning try against Ireland – his first in the World Cup – and two in their vital clash with Scotland will live long in the memories of fans around the globe.
MEMORABLE MOMENT OFF THE PITCH
Growing awareness among the Japanese population of the Brave Blossoms was reflected by increased numbers every day at their team hotel, where daily press conferences took place. The players were happy to pose for photographs and seemed to be enjoying the sudden rise not just in their own popularity but also of rugby itself inside the country.
MEMORABLE MOMENT ON THE PITCH
The victory against Ireland in Shizuoka stunned the world – like the famous Brighton Miracle four years ago – but their win over Scotland, who beat Japan four years ago and finished above them in the pool alongside South Africa, rewrote rugby history as they became the first nation from Asia to qualify for the knockout stages. It came in special circumstance too, a day after Typhoon Hagibis struck, claiming scores of lives. All Japanese at the game sang their hearts out to Victory Road (to the tune of Take Me Home, Country Roads), including the words “there will eventually come a day they can smile”.
In addition to Fukuoka, the “old battler” Luke Thompson, who is 38, will not be wearing the red-and-white jersey again. The futures of other veterans remain unclear, among them hooker Shota Horie, scrum-half Fumiaki Tanaka and possibly 31-year-old Leitch, who all competed in their third World Cup.
QUOTES OF THE TOURNAMENT
“The Irish are a quality side and we have been preparing for this game a hell of a lot longer than the Irish have. The last year at least, if not the last three years. The Irish have been thinking about this game since Monday.” – Jamie Joseph after their famous win.
“Japanese rugby is in a good place now. I am going to really celebrate the achievements of this team. There’s been a lot of work and it’s been relentless.” – Joseph after the South Africa defeat.
“I’ll leave to the next generations what to do and how to prepare, but we’ve managed to leave the team in a better state than when I came in. We’ve completed handing over the baton.” – Yu Tamura after the South Africa game
HOW DID THEY DO?
Beat Russia 30-10
Beat Ireland 19-12
Beat Samoa 38-19
Beat Scotland 28-21
Lost to South Africa 26-3
JAPAN BY NUMBERS
29 – points in the 26-3 defeat by South Africa – the lowest points total to date in a match at RWC 2019.
8 – Japan’s world ranking – higher than Scotland, Italy and Argentina.
54.8m – the peak domestic television audience for Japan v Scotland (figures not yet available for the quarter-final).
13m – views of the Rugby World Cup Japanese twitter account on the day of the Scotland game – more than double the English-language version.