Rugby World Cup 2019: Japan shaken awake by South Africa – but this might just be the start of something

A fair number of Japanese fans will probably never watch another game of rugby again in their lives. But for the rest, maybe something rare and precious has been planted over the last five weeks

Jonathan Liew
Sunday 20 October 2019 14:15 BST
The Japanese team following their defeat by South Africa
The Japanese team following their defeat by South Africa

Perhaps, ultimately, this was the way it had to end. The way it needed to end. An ugly mauling by a team of unlovable juggernauts; the natural order of things restored; the harsh realities of international rugby driven home. You’ve got to dish these lessons out early in life: the world is a cruel place, fairy tales aren’t real, the bigger boys always win out in the end, nothing good ever lasts. That’s the trouble with dreams: as golden as they are, as soon as they start, the clock’s ticking.

And on a crisp evening in the biggest city on the planet, Japan’s time finally ticked out. Half the country had tuned into their win against Scotland, and even more will almost certainly have been watching tonight. A fair number will probably never watch another game of rugby again in their lives. But for the rest, maybe something rare and precious has been planted over the last five weeks. Maybe this could be the start of something, not the end.

It has certainly felt that way, as slowly at first and then all at once, a nation fell in love with a game that for a large part of its history they played to a barely acceptable standard. Actually, perhaps that’s not quite right. It wasn’t so much a game that Japan fell in love so much as a team: this team, this magnificent bunch of boys, who in defeat displayed the same dignity and ambition they had displayed in victory.

This isn’t a time for patronising pats on the head. Japan truly believed they could win this, and there will be a kernel of regret that in the biggest game of their lives, too many of their best-laid plans went awry. The boundless, barrelling energy that had sustained them through the tournament seemed finally to run dry in the second half. Their kicking game was well below scratch. So was their set-piece, even taking into account the ruthless efficiency of the Springboks. They lacked nothing in effort, but at the critical moments, the execution wasn’t there.

Even so, it feels only right to recognise a great leap forward when we see one. Go on YouTube and you’ll be able to find footage of their 145-17 defeat to New Zealand at the 1995 World Cup. What’s most interesting of all, for me, is not the differences, but the similarities. The barrelling breaks, the relentless running, the shinkansen speed, the cunning offloads: even in those shambolic amateur days, the style were trying to play was still recognisable as the distinctive Japanese game that has charmed the pants off everyone over the last month. It’s just that they were playing it ridiculously badly.

Many observers over the last month have wondered aloud why so few European teams play with the verve and daring of this Japan side. But implicit in that is a slight underestimation of just how hard it is to pull that sort of game off. The ceaseless drilling, the clockwork precision, the telepathic understanding, the superhuman fitness: these are the sort of attributes that are not months but years in the making. There’s no magic to it: just hard work, fine coaching and the good fortune to unearth a generation of players fit for the elite.

OK, perhaps a little magic. You could sense it all week, in the crackles of electricity that have been fizzing along the Tokyo alleyways, through the chattering bullet trains, across the airwaves. You could see it in the kid on the pavement outside the stadium, who with Brave Blossoms jerseys having sold out all across the country, had decided to fashion his own with a white T-shirt and red sticky tape. Or in the three kids at Tobitakyu station holding up a placard reading: “We NEED tickets!!!” What desperation and longing in those capital letters, those three exclamation marks. What resignation in their eyes. They knew, as well as anyone, that nobody was giving up their seat for this one.

And you could sense it in the stadium too, in the tears rolling down the cheeks of the Japanese players as their national anthem was played. You could sense it in some of the early line breaks, particularly one by Kenki Fukuoka that brought the stadium to its feet: 50,000 people defying the laws of sound; a 27-year-old winger defying the laws of physics.

A young Japanese fan ahead of the quarter-final

Briefly, it felt like Japan might drag us all into that place again: the place where the normal laws of sport and the universe no longer apply, where skill and will alone turn the wheel of progress. Occasionally, cracks would appear in the immaculate South African edifice: Lukhanyo Am messing up a golden three-on-one opportunity, a needless penalty given away in good territory, the remarkable sight of the mighty Springbok pack being heaved off their own scrum.

But take a snapshot of any airborne object and you will be given the illusion of flight. South Africa notched a couple of scores early in the second half to give themselves some breathing space. And as their rush defence began to exert a chokehold, as their forwards began to dominate, as Faf de Klerk began to run the game on strings, it became clear that Japan’s pockets were empty. The crowd, realising this too, began to subdue a little, like that moment at the end of a night out when everyone starts to feel chilly at around the same time, and then there’s a bit of a silence, and then someone meekly suggests calling an Uber.

That it was by some distance the lowest-scoring of the four quarter-finals illustrates just how successfully the Springboks managed to play their game, not Japan’s. Some of their hits felt like earthquakes, some of their rolling mauls like avalanches. They may strive first and foremost for physical dominance, but they back it up with cold steel. And just because you think you know what’s coming, doesn’t make it any easier to face.

So yes, South Africa won. But in a more abstract sort of way, so did Japan. Their electrifying run may have been grappled to the ground, but they will emerge from the tournament as a respected member of the game’s elite: No6 in the world, ahead of Australia. And on another level, they have achieved something that perhaps only the All Blacks have managed in recent times. Both within rugby and among the constituency of agnostics, Japan have shifted the window of the possible, reimagined how the game of rugby union might be played and enjoyed at the highest level.

The greatest sides challenge conventions. Maybe you don’t need a team of ocean liners to win Test matches. Maybe you can win with relentless speed, impossible angles, on-the-hoof wizardry. Maybe your scrum half doesn’t need to box-kick a dozen times a game. Maybe you can build a rugby culture from scratch. Maybe you can play the game with nous and élan and – that vastly underrated concept – fun. For Japan, it may all have ended in tears. The tournament carries on without them. But for these few thrilling weeks, they showed us another way.

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