“Quarter-finals? It’ll mark a new era for us,” said Satoshi Toyota, an avid Japan fan and veteran of five World Cups. “I can feel it coming.” The Brave Blossoms hadn’t even beaten Samoa by this point as he speculated upon his nation’s World Cup hopes, but it was clear Mr Toyota – no relation to the multinational automotive brand, as he was keen to add – knew what he was talking about.
By the end of the night, he and 40,000 other Japanese supporters had been treated to a second high-octane performance from the Brave Blossoms at this World Cup, one that nudged the nation another step closer towards the last eight. Japan have never progressed beyond the group stages before. Four years ago they came agonisingly close, winning three out of four of their matches, only to lose out to Scotland’s superior points tally, secured via two crucial bonus points.
But after their victory last weekend, beating Samoa 38-19 under the floodlights of the Toyota Stadium, Japan now stand poised to wipe clean the pain of the past and embark upon “a new era”. With 14 points to their name and one final game to play, assuming the typhoon-threatened clash with Scotland goes ahead as currently proposed, the hosts have history in their sights – and, with it, a sense of elevation to the next level.
It’s been a long time coming. That day in Brighton four years announced Japan’s arrival on the international stage, but this tournament has made it clear that the nation won’t be stepping aside anytime soon. They’re no longer a team to be casually dismissed as an obstacle or inconvenience, a mere footnote in the pages of sporting history, but a genuine force to be reckoned with.
They bullied the Irish into submission. Outfought and outplayed Samoa. And for all the initial nerves against Russia, the eventual 30-10 scoreline reinforced the gulf that has opened up between Japan and the chasing ‘Tier Two’ pack. Whereas at the 2015 tournament Japan had been the outsiders knocking on the door, this time around they’ve established themselves as the frontrunners. “They’ve set the tone in our pool,” admitted Samoa captain Jack Lam after his team’s defeat. “We threw our best punch and it couldn’t come off.”
The transformation from England 2015 to Japan 2019 has been remarkable. The never-say-die spirit which marked their famous win against South Africa continues to run rich through the Brave Blossoms, but it’s the improved technical aspects to their game which have caught the eye.
Japan’s transitional play has been particularly devastating, leaving their opponents scattered, scrambled and susceptible to the inevitable. Timothy Lafaele’s try against Samoa, coming just before the half-hour mark to hand the hosts their breakthrough, was a fine example of the side’s ability to turn defence into attack.
It had started with a typically industrious turnover from Michael Leitch, Japan’s resident breakdown burglar. Quickly and efficiently, play was worked to Lomano Lemeki who shuffled into gear on the wing, feet lighting up with electricity as he penetrated the Samoan rearguard. Up next were the Japanese forwards, exerting their raw physicality to maintain the team’s forward momentum while pushing the men in blue deeper and deeper into their own 22. And then, finally, the service from Yutaka Nagare, the smallest man at the World Cup, to set in motion a flurry of hands before Lemeki crashed over near the left flank. Seamless, fluid, breathless – this was Japan at their collective best.
Then there’s the individual talents present among Jamie Joseph’s squad. Japan have genuine game-changers within their ranks, players capable of producing those moments of magic to turn a match on its head. Lemeki has already had his mention, but the winger is just one half of a deadly duo, with counterpart Kotaro Matsushima blazing a similar trail of destruction. The 26-year-old, who flashed with potential under Eddie Jones four years ago, ran riot against Russia, touching down with a hat-trick of tries, before going on to play a hugely influential role in pinning back the Irish with his pace. And of course it was his late, late try which secured Japan their bonus point against Samoa.
Along with the likes of Leitch, fly-half Yu Tamura, who has registered the most points of the tournament with 40 to his name, and number eight Kazuki Himeno, another turnover merchant, there’s a glistening array of quality at Joseph’s disposal, which, when slotted together and topped up with a healthy serving of fan fuel, makes for a formidable, typically efficient Japanese machine.
Which brings us to the showdown with Scotland: a shot at reprisal and revenge. As the team who denied Japan their place in the 2015 quarter-finals, Gregor Townsend’s men head to Yokohama as marked targets. The side that was battered 45-10 by the Scots four years ago is long gone. The Brave Blossoms are hungrier now. Fitter, slicker, quicker and altogether more dangerous. A lot would have to go wrong for Joseph’s side to emerge from the coming collision without their name among the last eight, but the Kiwi and his men are keeping grounded. “There’s no looking past Scotland,” Lemeki insisted last weekend. “We’ve never beaten them before in World Cup conditions, so it’s definitely going to be tough but we’ll be ready.”
That they will. An expectant nation is watching and waiting. No longer are the Japanese mere hosts, content to revel in the prestige and honour that comes with holding a global tournament. Having seen what their men are capable of, the home faithful wants to continue marching up this incline, up to the rarified air of the sport’s heavyweight elite. It’s made for an absorbing spectacle thus far, re-energising the country’s small but fervent rugby fanbase while snagging the attention of the wider public. Indeed, a record peak audience share of 46.1 per cent was recorded on NTV, the national broadcaster, for the Samoa win. But you feel this could be just the beginning.
With so much progress made, in excelling as a team and capturing the country’s imagination, the coming finale can serve as confirmation of Japan’s ascension to the top table. They, as much as anyone, will want this match to be played. Progression on account of a technicality will no doubt feel hollow for a team that has toiled and strained to reach this stage. Because victory over Scotland can be the moment that, as one fan said, ushers in a “new era” for the side. With a bright dawn breaking, the red sun of Japan is slowly rising into view.
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