The Breakdown: Japan's Rising Sons create history on an unforgettable night

Rugby World Cup
by Iain Payten

In the end, Scotland didn’t stand a chance. How can you when you only have 15 men and your rival has a team of 70,015?

And sublime skills. And pace. And tactical acumen. And when things get tough, reserves of courage and belief.

And the ability to surf on a wave of red-and-white passion, poured out by not just the deafening occupants of Yokohama Stadium, but a nation of 127 million, too.

Nope. They gave it a decent shot, Scotland, but up against Japan - the team and the country - they simply didn’t have the numbers.

You will perhaps hear it said that Japan’s maiden entry into the Rugby World Cup finals is a shock, and their win over Scotland at Yokohama yet another entry in the Brave Blossoms’ miracle win list.

It wasn’t and it isn't. Not now. The miracles are over. After clinically taking down Ireland and then Scotland inside three weeks, Japan are not only deserving of a place in the playoffs, they’ll be one of the better teams in the last eight.

Indeed, there are a few teams, including Australia, who would quite happily take the form and momentum of Japan right now.

Perhaps, too, it will be viewed as bad luck that because of the way the draw spat out a stacked pool B, Japan’s reward for topping their pool A is to now meet heavyweights South Africa in the quarter-finals.

But at this World Cup, with what we have seen from Jamie Joseph’s team, is there such a thing as a foregone conclusion anymore?

Brighton 2015 will be mentioned often this week and both teams will likely talk down the relevance to Tokyo 2019, but neither will mean it.

There is a direct line between the one-off hit orchestrated by Eddie Jones four years ago and Japan’s defeats of Ireland and Scotland in the last four weeks. 

That win gave Japan some simple, but extremely powerful, knowledge: it can be done. 

The curtain of tier one invincibility came down that day for Japan rugby, and though they’ve not set the world on fire in between, Jamie Joseph’s team arrived at this World Cup prepped like a Melbourne Cup runner. Arriving at their own World Cup, ready to win. Down to minute.

There were so many remarkable things to happen at Yokohama Stadium on Sunday night it’s hard to know where to start.

Probably the fact that the game started at all is the obvious one.

Only 24 hours before, the game looked all but cancelled due to Typhoon Hagibis. With Italy and New Zealand called off, the standard had been set.

And Hagibis did wreak destruction, with 19 Japanese dying in her wake. But the sun rose on Sunday and Yokohama Stadium and surrounds were deemed safe, and so the match went ahead.

Japan spoke about playing for their fallen 19 in the sheds before the game, and a fitting moment of silence was held before the game.

Thereafter the red-and-white wall of noise rose, and did not descend again for two hours.

It lowered, a little, when Scotland wore early pressure, applied some physicality and gave Finn Russell the roll to glide through the line.

But like a insanely fit welterweight, Japan kept punching and punching and punching.

With extremely slick skills, and the head-swivelling vision of halfback Yutaka Nagare, Japan kept changing the point of attack and testing Scotland’s blindside readiness.

And eventually, they weren’t ready. Via the impressive Timothy Faefele, man-of-the-match Kenki Fukuoka had a vacancy put in front of him and he surged on the left touchline , and gave away a pop pass to Kotaro Mutsushima for a try. 

Jamie Joseph said post-game the exposure to Super Rugby had helped mature his players, but in truth, the most valuable Super Rugby exposure they had was to him; a former title-winning coach of the Highlanders in 2015.

Japan’s skill under pressure, spatial manipulation and willingness to ride contact and offload was very New Zealand-like, and Keita Inaga scored a second try soon after via both from Lafaele.

A grubber laid on a try for Fukuoka on the stroke of halftime saw him score a third, and the crowd was in raptures. 

Scotland were in a deep hole at halftime, knowing if they let Japan score one more try, they have to score a bonus point win themselves, and deny Japan a losing bonus point, to go through.

When Fukuoka scored his second after oranges, that challenge was set.

And Scotland, displaying their tenacity, gave it a decent crack.

Through the impressive Russell, Scotland moved the ball to space, mostly wide. And they began stretching Japan.

Scotland scored, twice, and drew within seven points with a yawning 26 minutes left to play.

Suddenly the Japanese supermen began to look very mortal. Fatigue kicked in and the fairytale looked under threat.

But they dug deep. Players spoke post-game about them playing for the victims of the typhoon, and Japan fought and scrapped and worked hard for each other in defence.

Former Rebels hooker Shota Horie was out on his feet at one point, and a faster man was gonna beat him on the outside. Horie sprinted for 30 metres, inching ever closer. And then he got him. 

Enough teammates did the same to shut down gaps that threatened to open, or cover ones that did, and for the clock to eventually tick down to ten minute, then six and then four, and then one. 

Japan saw out the last minute and then the crowd somehow found a few more dozen decibels. You’d have heard them in pit lane on Mount Panorama.

Battle over, Japan and Scotland tunnelled each other off in a superb show of respect and then the hosts returned to the field to soak up the moment, as the entire team of 70,015 applauded each other’s effort. Their shared achievement. Bows, photos and more bows.

After a game some had tipped as a half-chance for Japan to win, the Brave Blossoms had outdone everyone's expectations, and perhaps even their own. They'd rounded out an unbeaten run through the pool stages and made history.

The challenge will be making more history next week, and not letting a famous qualification become the peak. 

Achieving something you are deeply proud of before a campaign is finished is a tricky space. You want to celebrate but dare not do too much of it, lest your next rival senses you've already played your Grand Final.

Japan said they’re not done yet and with deadpan delivery, Michael Leitch said post-game he didn’t know who they were playing in the quarters. He’d look it up.

One thing is for sure: 'whoever they’re playing' still remember the danger of Japan. They'll remember Brighton. And there are more of them this year. 

Lots more.