How host Japan became a Rugby force
“This is no longer a miracle.”
So read many Japanese newspapers as the Brave Blossoms booked a place in the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals for the first time with a victory against Scotland.
The Japanese public and media are waking up to the fact their national rugby team have become a force to be reckoned with on the biggest stage of all.
But this did not happen overnight.
The devastating acceleration and agility of star wingers Kotaro Matsushima and Kenki Fukuoka, coupled with the heroic leadership of captain and back-rower Michael Leitch, deserve all plaudits that come their way, but there is more to the Brave Blossoms than their poster boys.
Japan has the ball-playing ability from 1 to 15 – and on the replacements’ bench.
They have forwards with handling skills to rival that of opposition backs, capable of some outrageous offloads as demonstrated by hooker Shota Horie against Scotland.
The Brave Blossoms know their strengths lie with their fitness and are keen to maximise ball-in-play time, moving the ball away from the area of contact as quickly as possible.
After becoming the sporting story of the pool stage, the hosts face two-time winners South Africa in the last eight on Sunday. BBC Sport looks at the factors behind Japan’s rise.
Launching the Sunwolves into Super Rugby a few months after the 2015 tournament has brought huge benefits to the national team.
The Japanese players are now testing themselves against quality southern hemisphere opposition, a luxury they would not have with domestic Top League rugby only.
Although the Sunwolves will no longer participate in Super Rugby from 2021, they have played a pivotal role in Japan’s World Cup preparations.
An additional alignment between the national team and the Sunwolves across the past two seasons has seen head coach Jamie Joseph and assistant Tony Brown taking the reins of both teams, leading to the Super Rugby side becoming an extension of the Brave Blossoms.
Much of the attacking flair and nimble handling Japan have produced at the World Cup has been honed in Super Rugby.
Joseph and Brown even had the luxury last season of choosing which players featured for the Sunwolves, pulling out the majority of Japan’s World Cup squad for a series of intensive training camps and allowing the Brave Blossoms to perfect those set-piece routines and backs move, and arguably make them the fittest team at the tournament.
It’s not just the Sunwolves where Japanese rugby has benefitted from overseas coaches.
Robbie Deans, the most successful Super Rugby coach by a number of titles, has been at the helm of Panasonic Wild Knights in the Top League since 2014 and key to the development of wing Fukuoka and front-row forwards Horie and Keita Inagaki.
Meanwhile, Kazuki Himeno, one of the players of the tournament so far, has 2007 World Cup-winning coach Jake White to thank for his progression.
White was appointed head coach of Toyota Verblitz in 2017, whom Himeno joined in April that year straight out of university.
Just one month later, he was made captain by White, stating it was a “big chance for him to grow”.
The back-row forward struggled to cope with the captaincy initially but began staying late at night in cafes, reading books on leadership and building a team.
He was rewarded with his first Brave Blossoms call-up, less than two months after making his debut for Verblitz in the Top League.
He has since continued on his meteoric trajectory with his ram-battering carries and tenacious work at the breakdown establishing him as one of the first names on Joseph’s teamsheet for Japan.
While Joseph and Brown will undoubtedly get the headlines for Japan’s majestic attacking play, it has been the scrum where the Brave Blossoms have improved most under their tenure.
Shin Hasegawa is the man in charge of the Japanese scrum. Cutting a menacing figure in a suit and tie on the end of Japan’s bench on Sunday, the former prop is not the kind of person you would want to bump into at night down a secluded Tokyo alley.
Having played alongside Joseph for Japan at the 1999 World Cup, Hasegawa realised that the Japan scrum was easily overpowered by opponents.
After overhauling Top League team Yamaha Jubilo and turning them into a title contender with the best scrum in the league, Hasegawa was called upon by Joseph in 2016 to assist the Brave Blossoms’ scrummaging.
Conscious that Japanese players will generally be of smaller stature than their opponents, Hasegawa has compared his scrummaging technique with Japan to a punch, where “punching faster” will cause more impact than “punching harder”.
His breakthrough came in two Tests against Ireland in June 2017.
Japan was overpowered in the scrum in the first Test. However, a minor change in the angle of the hooker saw the Brave Blossoms compete the following week. It was then the Japan forwards realised his ability to transform the scrum.
Hosts ready to make amends for the warm-up loss
South Africa fans with painful memories of 2015 will be eager to remind Japan that lightning does not strike twice.
However, the Brave Blossoms have already beaten Ireland and Scotland in Pool A and will certainly fancy their chances of claiming another tier-one scalp on Sunday.
The rematch of the Brighton miracle comes just 44 days after the teams met in a pre-tournament warm-up game, with the Springboks cantering to a 41-7 victory on that occasion.
While the margin of victory that evening in Kumagaya would indicate a one-sided affair, this was far from the case.
Japan enjoyed twice as much territory and won twice as many rucks, outstripping the opposition in almost every statistic from clean breaks to offloads.
The only area where they failed to match the Springboks was on the scoreboard, with the visitors more clinical than the hosts.
With the increased self-belief that has come with topping Pool A, Japan will be keen to make amends for the defeat last month.
Their line speed has been perfected over the course of their four victories, with the handling skills of centres Ryota Nakamura and Timothy Lafaele paramount to Matsushima and Fukuoka being granted attacking opportunities.
Never has rugby received this level of exposure in Japan. The nation’s robustly healthy newspaper industry has plastered the red and white of Japan all over its front pages, while television records have been obliterated for Brave Blossoms games.
Sunday’s win against Scotland saw 53.7% of the country tune in, making it the most watched television programme of the year domestically.
Viewership has increased game-on-game for Japan matches during the pool stage, with Sunday’s audience already more than double that of the opening game.
Rugby has truly captured the hearts of this nation.
The word legacy is often tarnished with a sense of platitude when uttered around major sporting events. However, this is uncharted territory for Japanese rugby, whose job it will be to ensure that these fans are not following the sport for a mere six weeks every four years.
Culled from BCCSports