Japan’s thrilling 19-12 victory over Ireland has ignited the Rugby World Cup and provided an injection of confidence into a team that has grown a reputation for punching above its weight. For the people of Japan it is another seminal moment to celebrate following the “Miracle of Brighton” at the 2015 tournament when they defeated the mighty Springboks in a result so shocking that it spawned a movie and became part of Japanese rugby folklore.
There will be debate over which result was a greater achievement, but what matters now for Japan is that the win over Ireland takes them to the brink of a World Cup quarterfinal on home soil when many did not see them getting out of their pool. That would be considered a major success for a team that desperately wants to break into rugby’s elite, and for a country that reveres the game for all of its values, even if it is far down the pecking order in terms of major pastimes behind baseball, football, sumo wrestling, tennis and golf.
Rugby, in many ways, mirrors Japanese society and brings out the best of their philosophy on how life should be lived – through showing strength and bravery in adversity, respect, hard work and discipline.
It is difficult to understand how deep these values run in Japan until you see them through your own eyes – a society built on order, structure and a belief that their way of being is the right one.
It comes out in the way they support their team, and the opposition, at stadiums with an almost giddy appreciation. There is no verbal bashing of the opposing team or drink-fuelled berating of their own players for mistakes, just a simple appreciation of the contest playing out in front of them, and encouragement for their side.
The silence that falls over the stadium when kicking a penalty or conversion is a sign of this, when in many parts of the world whistling, chanting or booing is meant as a form of distraction. Fans behave this way because in Japan to win without honour is actually to lose.
Humility in victory
It makes their team, and the Japanese people, easily likeable and one of the reasons why their stunning victory over the Springboks four years ago, and the repeat against a much more fancied Ireland on Saturday, were both enjoyed so much by just about everybody not associated with the vanquished.
Scanning the crowd at the City of Toyota Stadium ahead of South Africa’s victory over Namibia that followed immediately after the Japan-Ireland clash, it was astonishing to see the number of locals wearing Springbok jerseys, and many from the actual World Cup four years ago.
This was a sign of respect from Japanese fans to the Boks following their win – suddenly South Africa had a rush of new supporters in the country. It is not meant to belittle the Boks, or goad them, but rather to celebrate what was a historic moment for Japanese rugby and the country’s sport as a whole. Expect a rush of sales of Irish jerseys in the coming months.
Beyond the significance behind Saturday’s win, there are practical considerations now for Japan as they seek what would be a historic quarter-final place. They will likely still have to beat Samoa in Toyota City on Saturday and Scotland in their final Pool A game in Yokohama on 13 October to be sure of winning a place in the next round. And if they do, it would likely set up a quarterfinal against South Africa, a game that will reignite the memory of Brighton.
For their New Zealand coach Jamie Joseph, the Ireland win was huge, but much work lies ahead and it is about not getting too caught up in the moment.
“When you think about what we witnessed, you feel really proud as a coach and a rugby team and you didn’t want to let down the country,” Joseph says. “We’ve discussed that as a team. We are just going to enjoy this as a team. We could be in a situation where we win [this game] and lose to Scotland and not go through. That is what happened last time [in 2015], so we won’t get ahead of ourselves. We talk about our squad as one team because it takes all of us to get a result like that. The team culture we have is what takes us across the line.”
Pieter “Lappies” Labuschagne, born in Pretoria and only recently qualified to play for the Asian nation, captained Japan in their historic win. It would not have been possible had he featured for the Springboks when called for June internationals against Scotland, Italy and Samoa in 2013, but the fact that he never got onto the pitch kept his international options open.
A ‘global’ team
Japan also has players from Australia, New Zealand, Tonga, South Korea and Samoa in their squad, who largely bring, perhaps most importantly, size, but also vast experience from Super Rugby. Japan has its critics for these imports, of which there are 16 in its 31-man World Cup squad, but the truth is they would not be a competitive rugby nation without them.
The Japanese genes do not easily provide players who can compete at lock or in the loose forwards, and therefore most of the imports, such as Labuschagne, find themselves in the scrum.
“It was more than the 23 guys on the pitch. There was a mass belief in the squad and there was the belief that we could do something different,” Labuschagne says. “It took a special effort by everyone to get back up and get back in the line.”
Scrumhalf Fumiaki Tanaka, a rarity in Japanese rugby after playing for New Zealand’s Highlanders in Super Rugby, says this group are determined to leave their mark on the game.
“We’ve really shown that nothing is impossible. We showed to the world Japan can win, so now it’s a matter of continuation,” he says. “Finally, we’ll be freed from the South Africa talk. We’ve been through that all the time for the past four years. I want to now say, it’s not just South Africa and we showed to the kids if you put effort in you can beat anyone.”
He said also that the players will remain “dry”, not allowing their focus to be shifted by wild celebrations of the Ireland win.
“We’ll enjoy it, but no alcohol. We will have good recovery and prepare for the next match. There’ll be no change to what we’ll be doing, analyse the opposition and play according to the game plan. We’re playing in Japan, but we won’t let the noise around us affect us and [we] will put focus on ourselves.
“This tournament is held in Japan and I don’t want the Japanese rugby run to end because of us not leaving a mark, so we’ll control ourselves and play for Japanese rugby.”
The other scrumhalf in the squad, Yutaka Nagare, says they must quickly shift their focus to Samoa.
“We’ve shared the joy but the players and staff have all said the focus for the next game is important, and the worth of this [victory] will not be as high if we don’t win the next game. We really feel the support and their expectation, but the media and fans probably thought, ‘Could we really win this?’ Just as Jamie said, we really believed we could win, and in each other. It’s meaningful we’ve managed to excite Japan.”
Lock-turned-prop Isileli Nakajima had the last word: “We beat them better than the Springboks, so it’s awesome.”