Japan don’t deal in miracles anymore. Those days are long behind them. The end of the road may have been reached in Tokyo, succumbing to a physically superior, Terminator-like South African side, but there’s no going back to a life of ‘upsets’ and ‘surprises’. The bar has been raised. Expectations adjusted. The Japanese have pulled up a seat at the top table, elbows out, and whether or not the waiters approve, they’ve tucked straight into the mains.
And what a sight to see. The Rugby World Cup needed this. The sport, in fact, needed this. For too long, rugby has been the preserve of that elite minority who have dominated the landscape, setting the agenda both on and off the pitch. But in Japan we have an unknown entity, bristling with promise and potential – a stark reminder that you don’t always need to follow the crowd in getting to where you want to be.
Because that’s been one of the absorbing delights of this Japanese rugby team. They’ve completely torn up the script of how the sport should be played. It’s been bombastic in approach and utterly unpredictable at times, with all caution thrown to the wind by Jamie Joseph and his men.
You could see it last night in the first 60 seconds of the match when Yu Tamura, positioned from deep inside his own 22, floated a cross-field kick to the right flank in search of Kotaro Matsushima: a brave, bold move that almost went wrong as Makazole Mapimpi came close to snatching possession. It may have part of a wider game plan to unsettle the Springboks – “We planned to create unstructured situations and there were spaces [to exploit] so we managed that,” Tamura said afterwards – but you feel that only the Japanese would have the audacity, the temerity to adopt such thrilling, heart-in-mouth tactics.
It’s been the same story throughout the tournament: from the hot-potato offloading that left Scotland’s backline in tatters, shredded beyond repair, to the electrifying surges in pace of Kenki Fukuoka and Matsushima that have terrorised defence after defence. It’s been breathless, a riot of energy and speed and heroism and conviction. And until they were met by a sky-high wall of Springboks that ultimately refused to give an inch, it felt like there’d be no end to this dizzying run.
But let’s not get carried away. Admittedly, the Japanese aren’t quite there yet. They’re the new kids on the block. The interlopers. Your mate’s mate, the one you’ve still not made your mind up on yet. Because while the side has seemingly cut itself free from the mediocrities of the past – see: 2011, New Zealand 83-7 Japan – this is just the beginning. If Japan are planning on sticking around, they’ve got to earn the right.
As that’s what separates the game’s elite from the rest. Consistency. The ability to produce performance after performance when it matters most. The ability to hold your own among the big boys. We can’t deny what Japan have achieved on home soil, but the next step is making sure such feats are recreated in the years to come.
Still, progress has been made. And that’s not to be sniffed at, especially when the inequalities in the game are so wide and the opportunities so few. Just look at their record. Four years ago, Japan had fallen agonisingly short of a quarter-final berth. In New Zealand prior to that, they finished bottom of Pool A without a win and four points behind behind Canada. Eight years may be a long time, but there’s no denying the upward trajectory – and if they can continue along that path, then who knows what the future holds.
It’s not going to be easy, though. In many ways, this is the end of an era for the current side. For key players such as Michael Leitch (31), Shota Horie (33), Luke Thompson (38), Ryohei Yamanaka (31) and Yu Tamura (30), this World Cup could well be their last, depriving Japan of a central core that has been crucial to fostering team spirit and togetherness.
With the Sunwolves, where many of Japan’s stars ply their trade, also set to drop out of Super Rugby as of 2020, the worry is that crucial exposure to and experience among the game’s best talents will be lost. Although proposals have been made by the Japanese Rugby Football Union (JRFU) to establish a new professional league within the country, there’s nothing yet set in stone. If nothing comes of it, the nation’s representatives may well find themselves struggling to develop and push on ahead of France 2023.
More than anything else, Japan will be desperate to keep hold of Joseph – a man who has no doubt caught the attention of the likes of New Zealand, Ireland and Australia, all three of whom will be on the hunt for a new head coach once the tournament comes to a close. Joseph has built firmly upon Eddie Jones’ foundations, moulding and sculpting this current crop of players into a force to be reckoned with. “The reason that this team has changed is because of Jamie Joseph, in how he led us and how he taught us rugby,” said Leitch at this World Cup. If the JRFU is serious about building for the future, Joseph needs to be on the scene.
But regardless of what comes, Japan can still look back over the past five weeks and know it’s carved out something special on these shores, something that won’t fade from memory. It’s hard to truly quantify the way in which the Japanese people have embraced rugby, a sport that lacks the same status as baseball, sumo or soccer. The numbers certainly give an idea – 60 million tuned in for the win over Scotland, a figure that is expected to be bettered by yesterday’s quarter-final – but it’s the sights and sounds of those living in the moment, right in the heady, intoxicating thick of it, which point to the wave of enthusiasm that has rolled across the nation.
It’s the old men on the metro pouring over their broadsheets – yes, they’ve still got them here – glued to the sports pages, desperate to hover up every last word on the Brave Blossoms. It’s the father and his seven-year-old daughter, bright-eyed beneath her Kabuki face paint, dressed in a cool-blue kimono, a pair of sandal-styled geta to boot, heading to her first rugby match. It’s the Japanese mascot, singing her heart out for the hosts before switching to the Springboks’ national anthem, which, for the record, features five of the country’s 11 official languages. Or it’s the thousands of fans reduced to tears by defeat and the deflating realisation that, for now, the journey has reached its end.
Across all walks of Japanese life, it seems the national side have caught the gaze of those curious onlookers eager to get swept along in the rush and thrill. “I have 70-year old-women who are watching all the games,” says Shotaro Honda Moore, a long-time rugby fan and English teacher in Tokyo. “Now I don’t want to stereotype and say 70-year-old women don’t like sport, but she’ll say ‘I’ve never seen rugby before.’ But because the event is so massive and everyone is so into it, it sucks people in.”
Whether this widespread enthusiasm stands firm and can draw in both the crowds and participants needed to grow the Japanese game, only time will tell. But on and off the pitch, Japan has left its mark. The nation has blazed a trail, established itself as a shining example to those smaller sides and unions who, for decades now, have been chasing the coat tails of the sport’s heavyweights. Whatever is to come in the years ahead, maybe that can be Japan’s legacy: the ability to turn miracles into the mundane and show that anything is possible when you put your mind to it.
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