JOSEPH LITTAUA WRITES- Asian countries have never been considered powerhouses in the world of rugby. Of those that participated in the Rugby World Cup circuit, only Japan made it to the tournament—as the host country. So, when the pools were drawn and the preliminary qualifying tournaments finished, few expected to see Japan come out ahead, especially in a group that was supposed to be dominated by Scotland and Ireland, and in which Samoa was expected to have at least a decent showing. All experts had Japan pinned third at best in the group.
Japan’s first match in Group A was against Russia, a relatively weak entry in the rugby world. Russia had qualified for the RWC after Spain, Belgium and Romania were sanctioned for fielding ineligible players. Their previous meeting in Gloucester, England was only a narrow defeat of 32-27. This time, however, Russia could not hold back Japan and the Brave Blossoms finished with a strong 30-10 score line.
Japan’s second match was truly a shocker, especially for those who had watched Group A. Ireland was ranked 2 in the standings, posing a challenge to top-notch nations like South Africa, England, Australia and New Zealand. Yes, the Japanese team was on the rise, but no one expected Japan to win over Ireland. In fact, experts predicted the probability of Japan beating Ireland at about 10%, and with a predicted score of +20 points in favor of Ireland. It was a close match, but in the end, a strong defensive showing by Japan was enough, and the final score was 19-12.
Japan’s third match against Samoa showed even more prowess on the part of the Japanese players. The Japanese cruised to a relatively quick lead early and never let go, even scoring once more during the overtime portion of the match, for a final score of 38-19.
In Japan’s last pool match against Scotland, Kenki Fukuoka, who joined the roster at the last world cup, truly rose to the occasion. The speedy Japanese wing player was able to slice through the Scottish line for 2 tries, and was essential for their first try of the match. Despite Scotland’s efforts to fight off the crafty Japanese offense, the team was unable to blow the Brave Blossoms away. The final score of 28-21 meant that Japan had made history at the RWC.
Unfortunately, despite a perfect group stage record, it seems that all good things come to an end. Japan lost in the Quarterfinals to South Africa with a score of 3-26. But this run was historic and monumental for a nation that needed a lift after a massive typhoon like Typhoon Hagibis. Now the team has begun to focus on its next big tournament, Tokyo Summer Olympics 2020. Win or lose next time, the Brave Blossoms have lived up to their name.