World Cup run must be the start, not end, for Japan

Rugby World Cup
Beth Newman Profile
by Beth Newman

The fairy tale is over but the Japanese rugby dream is just beginning to be realised after a phenomenal Rugby World Cup campaign.

This was the weekend where the upsets were swallowed up by clinical nations who have proven themselves to be genuine contenders.

Wales went closest to being rolled as a favourite while England, New Zealand and South Africa ultimately claimed regulation victories.

In Tokyo on Sunday night, there was one last chance for Japan to create evening that would be marked down in rugby folklore,

Arguably, they did that regardless of the result, with the atmosphere created by the roughly 48,000 Japanese supporters in Tokyo Stadium on Sunday night a sign of how captivated this country has become with this team in five short weeks.

Japanese players and coaches will, justifiably, feel the disappointment of their run stopping at the quarter-finals after topping their pool and becoming the first Asian team to make the quarter-finals.

Fans were in tears after the game in the wake of an emotional five-week rollercoaster but those tears seemed laced with pride as much as dismay about their team's exit.

Staff and players huddled together on the field post-match and captain Michael Leitch simply told them to keep their chins up and remember to be proud of all they have done in this competition.

Leitch has become a Japanese icon in the past month and stadiums have been littered with fans donning painted "Leitch beards" and chanting "Leittccchhh" at every opportunity.

On Sunday, the Springboks' experience and class showed as the game ticked on and their brutality eventually ground the hosts down in what might look on paper like a predictable victory.

That the score blew out to 26-3 in the end didn't reflect Japan's attacking chances throughout the match.

The margin mattered little to the crowd, who chanted "Nippon" as loudly in the 80th minute with the game lost as they did as the teams packed their first scrum.

There is no doubt that Japan forced the rugby world to take notice of them as a genuine threat in this tournament, with wins over top 10 nations quickly losing their "miracle" status.

The challenge now is to ensure 2019, and the progress of the last four years is not lost to the political complexities of Japanese rugby.

Michael Leitch has become a Japanese icon. Photo: Getty ImagesJapan’s rugby system is one of the most unique to navigate with companies running many of the teams in the professional league and little involvement from the head body at every level of the game.

Companies often dictate players' lives and certainly their availability, an issue that has caused plenty of headaches for the Sunwolves in their time in Super Rugby.

Asked post-match about the future of Japanese rugby, coach Jamie Joseph stressed the need for the right system to be cemented in Japan to help develop more Test players.

"I am just the coach and my job is to get the boys ready and to get them playing rugby like they have been playing. If we can put the right system in place then it can keep growing,” he said.

That will be easier said than done on a domestic level but then there is the matter of the international game and how the next World Cup cycle looks.

It is relatively easy to get your team up for a home World Cup, given full support from the union knowing that the eyes of the entire rugby world will be on your team and your country.

Joseph was given access to his players for many months of this year, fine-tuning every part of their preparation and while that could happen again when 2023 rolls around, it will require cooperation on a number of fronts.

Already the JRFU have pulled their financial support for the Sunwolves, the major factor in the side being axed from Super Rugby beyond 2020.

The simple answer for going up another level is to play tier one teams more regularly, particularly given their performance in this tournament and the need to stay on that path.

Jamie Joseph has urged the JRFU to get their system right. Photo: Getty ImagesJapan will leave the World Cup ranked higher than the Argentina and Scotland, and only just shy of France and the Wallabies - all teams that are considered tier one nations, and the Brave Blossoms must be counted among that number.

While rankings are somewhat treacherous benchmarks, the reality is Japan should be playing tier one nations more often than not.

That dilemma is not unique to Japan *cough Fiji cough* but the Japanese seem to be the nation ready to take the leap administratively and on the pitch.

With the scrapping of the proposed Nations Championship that would have included southern and northern hemisphere divisions leading to an end of year championship, there are few options available to countries like Japan.

This is where they need some help from their rugby friends.

There has been discussions about expanding the Rugby Championship in the coming years wand Japan would have to come into the conversation if that were to come to fruition.

While there would surely be willingness in some areas to investigate the option, the same arguments of travel and cost that existed in Super Rugby could also be applied to the Rugby Championship.

Rassie Erasmus says the inclusion of Japan in the Rugby Championship could be more complicated than initially perceived. Photo: Getty imagesSpringboks coach Rassie Erasmus, who will step back to a director of rugby role after the World Cup, said on Sunday that he couldn’t entertain htat prospect fully not knowing the potential pitfalls but that Japan’s style would certainly bring some excitement to the tournament.

"It’d be interesting, I think their style of play would be something interesting but the questions and the scenarios and the problems and solutions and different negatives I wouldn’t know that.

"I haven’t been part of discussions around that, haven’t put my thinking hat on about that.

"It's a nice proposition not sure if logistically possible, financially possible, travel wise those kind of things.

"I do know that they play exciting rugby but apart from that, it would be stupid for me to comment."

However the international structure ultimately ends up looking, the reality is the world doesn't want the excitement of Japanese rugby to end when this World Cup does.