The Rugby World Cup is well underway in Japan and despite the tournament being less than two weeks old it’s already shaping up to be a cracker. There have been brilliant performances from the big boys and a few surprises too from some of the second tier nations. Wales v Australia turned out to be an absolute classic and probably the game of the tournament so far, South Africa and New Zealand both impressed and looked strong in their Pool B opener on the first Saturday of the tournament, England impressed me against Tonga and the USA and Pool D minnows Uruguay recorded their first win in tournament history upsetting Fiji 27-30. Among all this, however, the hosts Japan have grabbed many headlines for all the right reasons. Not only did they beat the then number 1 ranked team in the world, Ireland, last Saturday in an incredible game they’ve also been outstanding hosts. They’re a team people can’t help but love and today’s post will look at a bit of the history of the game in Japan, rugby in the last few years and present day and why exactly do the neutrals love them.
Historically, rugby has never been too huge of a sport in Japan. It was played and followed but it’s popularity was probably in a bit of a middle ground when compared to other more followed sports such as sumo, football, baseball and tennis. Rugby was given a poor reputation by the Japanese government in the lead up to the Second World War and was heavily criticised during the war by the fascist Imperial Rule Assistance Association. The IRAA deemed the sport to be too foreign and gave it the name tokyu meaning fighting ball. Many Japanese rugby players died during the war however following its end it saw a rather quick recovery. The sport began to grow in popularity during the 1960s, 70s and 80s with various tours and matches abroad. England went on tour to Japan 1971 in the centenary year of the Rugby Football Union (RFU) and Japan toured Wales, England and France in 1973. The tour of 1973 went rather poorly playing 11 games and losing 9. Japan have qualified and played in every World Cup since the first tournament in 1987 and hold the record of most Asia Rugby Championship wins with 25.
So all of that takes us to present day. That fantastic famous Saturday afternoon in Brighton seems like only yesterday when Japan rocked the rugby world by beating two time World Cup winners South Africa 32-34 at the Amex Stadium back in September 2015. The term gets thrown around a lot but it was honestly a result nobody saw coming and is arguably the biggest rugby upset of all time. It was at this point Japan began to win the hearts and support of rugby fans everywhere regardless of where they were from. Despite winning 3 group games and losing 1 they ended up finishing third in their group therefore were harshly knocked out (Scotland finished in front of them as they had 2 bonus points). They’re now the first Asian country to host the World Cup which is incredible considering in most of Asia rugby isn’t as popular or followed as much as other sports. They started the tournament against Russia and whilst got off to a shaky start the rest of their performance was strong. Their pace and tempo in which they attacked tired the Russians out quickly and won 30-10. Last Saturday there came another World Cup upset in which they beat Ireland in a modern day classic and what was a seriously feel good moment and a result they deserved. With Japan now on course to win their group and make it to the Quarter Finals for the first time, providing no major slip ups and all results go as planned in Pool A and Pool B then a date with South Africa awaits. Whilst it would be an immensely difficult task, we all know what happened the last time they met at the World Cup.
I believe there are many reasons behind Japan becoming a fan favourite but a big part of it is their style of play. Their attack is strong and they’re an incredibly fast team going forward. The opener against Russia showed how they can tire teams out with their style of play and the win against Ireland showed how persevering they are. They kept playing at a high tempo even at the end and wouldn’t give up. As a team they won’t stop going until the final whistle and it’s almost as if they refuse to tire out. If they play with the same quality and tempo they did in their opening two games in their final two then it will spell disaster for Scotland and Samoa. Samoa are a massive team in size and are incredibly physical and strong, however I believe the quick Japanese style will tire them and be too much to handle. Scotland are better suited to Japan’s style of quick attacking play and have the advantage of playing them last. Despite this, in my opinion it would be a monumental ask from Scotland to get a result against Japan purely because of the quality of the Japanese side. What’s gone down well aside from the performances is the manor in which the team, fans and the country as a whole have held themselves off the pitch. The Japanese team and fans have been respectful and friendly which goes a far way in all aspects of sport. The hospitality shown during the tournament has drawn praise from many professionals and fans alike and it is something the people of Japan can be proud of. It’s been an incredible World Cup on and off the field brining many new eyes to the sport and the game will only grow in Japan from here on in.
The days of losing 145-17 to New Zealand are long gone and with the way Japanese rugby has grown in the last few years and their performances in this World Cup the only way is up from here. If the remaining month of the tournament is anywhere as exciting and entertaining the last two weeks then it will one that will be talked about for a long time.