Exhilarating Japan arrive on the big stage in the land of the rising water
Hosts send an intoxicating air through rugby’s old order as they dump out Scotland
Japan’s Michael Leitch and Yu Tamura celebrate victory over Scotland in Yokohama, Japan. Photograph: Dan Mullan/Getty Images
Hanpa nai! The Japan rugby team have come screaming from the edges of expectation and reason to make this Rugby World Cup their own coming-out party. On a sublime Sunday evening in Yokohama, they dumped Scotland out of the tournament on a 28-21 score line in a match that was miraculous partly because it was played at all.
There was no real surprise that Japan had hosted this tournament with a degree of hospitality and organisation that has been impeccable. But in what was easily the most compelling pool of the first stages, their national team has, from the opening night, served as a gust of new, intoxicating air through rugby’s old order.
First, they out-ran and out-witted Ireland on a hot Saturday in Shizuoka to send the first true electrical charge through the country. And on Sunday night, with the main island of Honshu still reeling from the terrible wrath of Typhoon Hagibis, they ran riot against Scotland to confirm their status as the form team from this division, emerging unbeaten.
They thoroughly earned the right to face South Africa in the same stadium next Sunday. Rassie Erasmus must be slightly unnerved by the prospect facing his gargantuan Springboks squad. True, South Africa hit with unequalled ferocity. But how do you hit fresh air?
In the past, as Jamie Joseph said afterwards, Japan lacked a deep-down belief that it can compete against the old order nations. Now, in their home land, that confidence has come surging through. Sunday evening, in front of a rapturous local support, felt like a breakthrough.
“The crowd was massive for us,” said Michael Leitch, the team’s captain and figurehead afterwards. “Today was more than just a game for us. There was talk of the game not happening, so I’d like to thank everyone who had made this game happen. Our heart goes out to all the people who are suffering the typhoon.”
The result of the game confirmed that Ireland, as the mischievous rugby gods had been plotting for some, time, will play New Zealand next Saturday morning. But Japan have become the story of this tournament.
It’s hard to fathom that a country could absorb one of its fiercest and most unforgiving weather events in half a century and, then, within 12 hours, see its national team put on a display of exhilarating and uninhibited attacking rugby. World Rugby must have been swooning.
After Saturday’s deluge the edges of Tokyo were battered and drenched by a typhoon that, despite the warnings and the preparation, still claimed at least 23 lives before churning a path of destruction along the northeast corridor of the mainland. Kamaishi, one of the towns obliterated by a tsunami of 2011, was in its direct path and took another battering.
In a cruel twist the World Cup game that had been part of its recovery drive was cancelled at the eleventh hour. Players from Canada and Namibia, who were due to play on Sunday afternoon, helped with the clean-up after the storm passed through.
Meanwhile, the Scotland-Japan game was a severe doubt until Sunday morning, which was stunningly bright and warm after the typhoon deluge that rendered Tokyo a ghost down from noontime on Saturday.
The integrity and reputation of the World Cup hung in the balance for about 48 hours, with Scotland rugby, understandably aghast at the idea of not even getting to fight for the right to make the quarter-finals, threatening legal action on the governing body if the game was cancelled.
Then, as darkness fell on Saturday night, the rain intensified and the wind howled and the full gravity of the storm made itself apparent. Lives were lost: homes were ruined, Rugby seemed like a luxury: a privilege.
“We talked about that as a team.” Joseph said. “Sometimes those sort of things can be overwhelming, but I think it came out in the mix today. While we are celebrating, a lot of people are suffering.”
Japan is a resilient place. Despite the international reports of devastation, Tokyo bounced back to its kooky, vital self by Sunday morning. Confirmation that the game would go ahead was released by 11am, before most of the city’s coffee houses had reopened for business.
A hasty clean-up around the stadium in Yokohama convened. By 6pm the venue was filling up and hugely expectant.
Jamie Joseph’s team did not disappoint. If their 2015 World Cup moment was just that – a moment of day lightning against South Africa in sedate Brighton– this was different.
There was an obligation not to crumble here against one of the blue-blood nations from the far west. Kenki Fukuoka, who scored the try which undid Ireland, added another two here as Japan routed Scotland for a surreal 28-7 lead in front on a delirious home support.
It would be wrong to imagine that all of Tokyo or Japan was gripped by this. The country is too big and diverse, and the game too niche. But pockets of the city and country are enthralled.
“We call it noise,” said Joseph. “Walking into a hotel with people clapping, come off of the station and 50 people parting the way like royalty. It’s a bit different, especially for me.”
Grow in stature
Scotland, teetering on the brink of an embarrassment, made a fight of the evening with two second-half tries. But they couldn’t halt the Blossoms surge. With every outing they seem to grow in stature.
This win also leaves World Rugby with a new dilemma. Whether this form line is sustainable or whether it was a brilliant coup by Joseph’s coaching staff remains to be seen, but in the here and now Japan have put their hands up as the leading contender for what the game has been crying out for: a new nation that can compete against the establishment countries.
Japan will play against the Springboks without a scintilla of fear. There’s an old local saying: he who climbs Mount Fuji once is a wise man, twice a fool. They’ll make scaling South Africa the exception.