Why Japan beating Ireland is more significant than their victory over South Africa four years ago


All hail Japan’s Brave Blossoms

A few hours after the final whistle, the station is still bustling with rugby fans awaiting their trains home. Those clad in red and white mix happily with those in green. A queue snakes around the shop as supporters source post-match snacks for the journey – after all, you can work up quite an appetite watching history being made.

This could be Brighton 2015 or Shizuoka 2019 (Kakegawa the local station). The only differences would be the orderliness of the queue, and the speed and promptness of the trains.

Japan are making a habit of being at the centre of World Cup epics and the local fans here will be hoping there are more to come. Having stunned South Africa – and the world – in 2015, Ireland were the victims four years on.

It’s the 19-12 win under the setting sun at the Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa that feels most significant, though, and is the one that takes them to a record high of eighth in the world rankings.

Match report: Japan 19-12 Ireland

It was almost cat and mouse against the Springboks at RWC 2015; one side clawing ahead before the other caught back up, neither able to build a substantial lead and Japan delivering the decisive blow with Karne Hesketh’s last-minute try.

Yet here in Shizuoka they dominated. Yes, Ireland impressed in the first quarter and used their kicking game effectively to deliver two tries, but they didn’t get a sniff after that. The Brave Blossoms kept Ireland, the world’s No 1 team coming into this World Cup, scoreless for 60 minutes. Incredible.

Japan’s defence was outstanding; they often sent two men into tackles to not only stop the attacker but drive them backwards and thus negate Ireland’s physicality. They missed just 13 tackles and made 173 for a success rate of 93% – special mention to James Moore (23 tackles) and Luke Thompson (19).

Plus, they stole two Irish lineouts – one at a crucial juncture in their own 22. And those facets weren’t even the most impressive.

Tempo. That’s the word you would use to summarise this Japan team. It’s certainly the one that was most common among the responses of Ireland players when dissecting the match afterwards.

Japan not only play with speed but accuracy. Other teams have been bemoaning the slippery balls in the humid conditions and handling errors have beset many matches. It’s not a problem for Japan, the ball whizzed from one side of the pitch to the other and back again, and stuck firmly in each players grasp.

All hail Japan’s Brave Blossoms

Corner stop: Kenki Fukuoka runs in Japan’s try against Ireland (Getty Images)

Their creativity and speed of movement had Ireland scrabbling around to prevent them from scoring more than the one try they managed. Had it not been for Keith Earls’s tackle on Kenki Fukuoka five metres from the line, the men in green wouldn’t have even departed with a losing bonus point. In fact, Joey Carbery decided to kick the ball off at the end rather than launch a length-of-the field attack to ensure Ireland did retain a point that could be crucial when it comes to the final standings of Pool A.

Joe Schmidt insisted his side had not underestimated Japan, but his counterpart Jamie Joseph made an interesting point post-match. “We’ve been preparing for this game a hell of a lot longer than Ireland have,” said the Japan coach. “The players have been focusing on today for the last year at least and probably subconsciously for three years. Ireland have been thinking about it since Monday.”

Looking back to the opening night in Tokyo, Japan were nervous against Russia; they made uncharacteristic errors and made hard work of getting the four-try bonus point. In contrast, Ireland dominated every area of their first fixture against Scotland. A week on those Japanese nerves had been eradicated; there was clarity in their game plan and they delivered it expertly.

All hail Japan’s Brave Blossoms

Home advantage: Japan players line up for the anthem – with plenty of support in the crowd (Getty Images)

“The pressure wasn’t on us tonight,” said Thompson, at 38 the oldest player at this World Cup. “Last week we were expected to win, there were a lot of guys playing in their first World Cup match, it was a huge occasion and Russia played really well and didn’t let us do as much as we wanted to. This week we had more experience and we played with the ball well.”

There was belief too. It grew throughout the game, particularly as they continually held off the green wave. And they will need that same mental resilience as they move on to their remaining pool matches against Samoa and Scotland. After all, they won three matches in 2015 and didn’t make it to the quarter-finals, so they know nothing is guaranteed in terms of progress to the last eight just yet.

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They can be sure of growing excitement around the country, however. In 2015, they captured the imagination of the Japanese people and in 2019, with this victory over Ireland, they have cemented the nation’s interest in rugby. And fans will be hoping the journey isn’t over yet.

A look at the clips from the various fanzones across the country demonstrates how engaged people are with the tournament.

Those in Kakegawa station were clearly enjoying all that a World Cup brings. The branded products in the convenience store being snapped up as much as the bento boxes and beers. Most were already wearing the newest Japan jersey, plenty had a RWC 2019 hat or other item. It’s little wonder the merchandise sales for this tournament have already broken previous records.

Michael Leitch is the ‘face’ of this team. He was dropped to the bench for this match but he came on after half an hour when Amanaki Mafi was injured and made a huge impact, whether in his tackles or his link work out wide or the quiet words he had with Yu Tamura before crucial kicks at goal. Now he and his squad are looking to set more records on the pitch.

All hail Japan’s Brave Blossoms

Big impact: Michael Leitch attacks out wide (Getty Images)

“That was the best atmosphere I’ve ever played in,” said Leitch once he’d had a chance to digest the performance. “Everyone who has come to Japan for the World Cup is having a great time, the Tier Two teams are putting in good performances and I think this is going to be one of the best World Cups.

“We still have a job to do but this game was crucial for us. This is massive for Japan rugby. In 2015 we showed the world what we can do and now in front of our home fans hopefully we can leave a massive legacy.”

Brighton started the legacy, Shizuoka bolstered it and their all-round performance against Ireland suggests that it will continue beyond the pool stages of this World Cup. And that is exactly what the global game needs.

Japan are consistently shaking up the world order and for that they must be hailed. The Brave Blossoms are blooming marvellous.

Keep track all the action from Japan via our Rugby World Cup home page.

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