Raising Their Game

Raising  Their Game

With the first Rugby World Cup in Asia kicking off in Japan this month, can the hosts inspire a generation?

The game was billed as a David versus Goliath showdown, but few rugby fans really believed that minnows Japan would fell South Africa’s mighty Springboks. 

On the opening weekend of the 2015 Rugby World Cup, Japan did just that. 

“One of the most famous victories in the history of sport, I would go so far as saying. Not just the game of rugby union,” declared one South African TV commentator. 

It wasn’t just the fact that a relatively unknown side had beaten a rugby powerhouse (packed with 851 caps), it was the way in which Japan claimed their historic scalp. 

With the Springboks leading Japan 32-29 in the dying minutes, the Brave Blossoms’ talisman captain, Michael Leitch, twice chose not to kick a penalty and draw the pool B match. 

Just meters from South Africa’s try line, red-and-white-hooped shirts flung themselves at a wall of towering defenders, urged on by the delirious crowd. Then, fending off a South African with one hand, Amanaki Lelei Mafi deftly slipped the ball to Karne Hesketh. The New Zealand-born wing powered over the line, knocking the rugby world off its axis. 

It’s an encounter Member Steve Borthwick isn’t likely to forget. He was Japan’s forwards coach at the time. 

“For me, it was after the game and seeing the joy in the players and seeing spectators crying in the stands,” he says. “Everybody was hit by the emotions of that game. That was some day in Brighton.”

Japan went on to mesmerize crowds around England with their pacey, flowing rugby and fearlessness. They racked up two more pool wins, over Samoa and the United States, but it didn’t prove enough to progress in the competition. Japan flew home as the first team ever to win three group games and not make the knockout stage.

While the Brave Blossoms didn’t secure a quarterfinal spot, Borthwick, 39, says the team still accomplished its goals of inspiring the nation, establishing a new legacy for Japanese rugby and becoming the breakout team of the tournament. 

“When you hear in the second week of the tournament that all Japan shirts around England are sold out, you hear that 30 million people [in Japan] stayed up in the middle of the night to watch a rugby game and you hear that Japan is everybody’s second team of the tournament, I think we achieved those three things,” he says. 

The World Cup represented the culmination of four years of work led by Eddie Jones, the former coach of Australia. 

“Eddie Jones left no stone unturned in terms of the detail of the preparation,” says Borthwick, who represented England at the 2007 World Cup in France. “And that ultimately led to a very good performance by the Japan team.” 

While both Jones and Borthwick are now coaching England, Borthwick is quick to praise Japan’s progress under current coach, Kiwi Jamie Joseph.

“You saw how they played against England last November,” Borthwick says of the match that Japan led at halftime before finally losing. “There’s a change in expectation. They expect to win.”

The intervening years have seen wins over the likes of Italy and Georgia, a draw against France and a recent Pacific Nations Cup triumph. 

Players and fans alike will be hoping that the success continues when Japan kicks off its World Cup campaign on September 20 against Russia, this time as tournament hosts.

“This tournament is the first one that I can remember where you’ve got six or seven teams that can win it. I think it’s a highly competitive tournament,” Borthwick says. “It’s crucial to get that good start and get momentum.” 

Japan will need it in a tough pool that also includes Scotland, Samoa and Ireland. 

The 20-team competition takes place over six weeks, with matches played in 12 venues across Japan. Yokohama Stadium will host the final on November 2.

According to Member Rob Abernethy, executive director of the World Cup, applications for tickets have exceeded 5.5 million and more than 400,000 fans are expected to travel to Japan from abroad.

“We are anticipating a sell-out,” he says. “The demand has been exceptional, greater than any previous tournament, which shows just how attractive Asia’s first Rugby World Cup is.” 

Just as Japan captured the imagination of so many rugby fans across the world four years ago, Abernethy believes ordinary Japanese will embrace the chance to return  the adoration. 

“It will have such a unique character and special atmosphere for a Rugby World Cup,” he says, “and I think one thing that international fans will notice is that the Japanese public will get behind all the teams, not just the Brave Blossoms, which is going to be great to see play out.”

Borthwick says the tournament can also help the game flourish further. 

“This is a huge opportunity to inspire the kids to want to represent Japan,” he says. 

Giants beware.  

Words: Nick Jones

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