By Jack Tarrant
TOKYO (Reuters) – That Japan are preparing for the biggest match in their history, a Rugby World Cup quarter-final showdown against South Africa in Tokyo on Sunday, is a testament to the rapid improvement the Brave Blossoms have made over the past five years.
Despite appearing at every edition since the tournament’s founding in 1987, until four years ago Japan had just a single World Cup victory under their belts, a 52-8 win over Zimbabwe in 1991.
Routinely whipping boys, Japan were best-known for conceding the largest number of points in a single World Cup match when they were annihilated 145-17 by New Zealand in 1995.
However, under current England coach Eddie Jones, in 2015 Japan produced the greatest upset in World Cup history, beating twice-winners South Africa 34-32 in their opening pool match.
The victory put Japan on the rugby map and brought a wave of public support for a sport usually relegated below baseball, soccer and sumo wrestling back home.
A then-record 25 million people watched Japan’s win over Samoa in 2015. Although the Brave Blossoms failed to qualify from the pool stages following a loss to Scotland, a flame was ignited four years out from hosting the tournament themselves.
The result enabled the Japanese players to believe they could take on anyone. Many players believe their current success stems from the confidence gained in 2015, including flying winger Kenki Fukuoka who played then and who in this tournament scored two tries in a man-of-the-match performance against Scotland.
“The acknowledgement of our ability to play on the world stage was established four years ago, which led to our confident performance this time,” Fukuoka said.
Centre Ryoto Nakamura said there would have been no Japanese victory over Ireland this time had it not been for 2015.
The players routinely point to two major factors for their success – preparation and the influence of head coach Jamie Joseph who played for Japan in the 1999 World Cup.
Joseph has had the luxury of nine months with his players, having run a training camp since January after Japan’s Top League sides shortened their domestic season.
“It was very clear our players just weren’t ready to play test match rugby against tier-one teams,” Joseph said in the build-up to the World Cup when reflecting on his time in charge.
“In terms of our fitness and our ability to play at that level of rugby week in and week out, we just weren’t fit or strong enough.”
That has certainly changed and captain Michael Leitch has also spoken about the impact of the players’ exposure to the world’s elite, both at international level and for the Sunwolves in Super Rugby.
“The biggest reason is belief, that is the trigger,” said Leitch after the win over Scotland.
“Since 2011, the opponents we have played have been stronger and stronger. We have played more tier-one nations and played in Super Rugby.”
For Leitch and many others, this tournament is just the start.
“Looking back, even since 2011, this team has grown so much and it is scary to think about how far this team could actually grow,” said Leitch earlier this week.
“The last four games, we are getting better each time, and the confidence is growing.”
(Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)