RWC 2015 Spotlight: Japan

(IRB.COM) Monday 26 May 2014
RWC 2015 Spotlight: Japan
Hirotoki Onozawa scores for Japan v New Zealand at RWC 2011


At the time of the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987, Japan boasted more rugby clubs than any other nation in the world. Despite this and the fact that rugby had been played in the Asian country since the mid-19th century, the Brave Blossoms were regarded as one of the Game’s ‘minnows’ when the tournament kicked off in New Zealand.

Slowly but surely this perception has changed over the intervening years with the increased competitiveness of the team under John Kirwan and now Eddie Jones, who is hell-bent on achieving a top 10 IRB World Ranking, and the award of hosting rights for RWC 2019 to Japan contributing massively to the country’s increased standing in rugby’s global pecking order. 

A win or two at the next Rugby World Cup would help no end too, as, up to now, Japan have only managed to beat Zimbabwe, in 1991, and draw with Canada, twice, despite featuring in every single tournament. 

In a game of six tries, split evenly between the sides, Japan began life on the global stage at RWC 1987 with a 21-18 defeat to the USA in Brisbane. A heavy loss to England followed before Japan bowed out in some style against Australia. With captain and second row Toshiyuki Hayashi leading from the front and fly half Seiji Hirao in inspired form Japan gave a great account of themselves against the Wallabies. Unfortunately they could not sustain a marvellous first-half effort, which saw them go into the break just three points in arrears, and the co-hosts ran out 42-23 winners. 

With 13 tries from three matches Japan boasted the second best attacking record behind Scotland during the pool stages of RWC 1991. A threat to any side when allowed to play their fast-paced game, the Brave Blossoms scored one of the tries of the tournament in running Ireland close when a brilliant run down the left flank by Yoshihito Yoshida was finished off by Hiroyuki Kajihara.

Takahiro Hosokawa converted two of Japan’s three tries that day, to add to the nine points he scored in the opening day 47-9 defeat to Scotland, and the full back finished as his country’s top points scorer at RWC 1991 with an overall tally of 29 following five more conversions and two penalties in the historic 52-8 win over Zimbabwe at Ravenhill. 

After defeats to Wales (57-10) and Ireland (50-28), Japan could look forward to the prospect of playing New Zealand in their final pool fixture at RWC 1995. All that glistens was not gold though at the end of their stay in the Rainbow Nation as a second string All Blacks side, minus the prodigious Jonah Lomu, recorded the biggest win (145-17) in the history of the Rugby World Cup. At least Japan had the consolation of crossing their feted opponents’ line twice, Kajihara grabbing both tries, to maintain their record of scoring in each of their nine tournament matches to date. 

Statistically, RWC 1999 was as bad if not worse than their South Africa experience. Japan finished bottom of Pool D after three straight defeats, which yielded just 36 points and two tries – both scores coming in the 64-15 defeat to Wales at the Millennium Stadium. A fine piece of finishing by the outrageously quick Daisuke Ohata, later to become the world’s record try scorer, was one of very few highlights. 

RWC 2003 was a tale of ‘what might have been’ with Japan unable to sustain promising positions in matches against Scotland, Fiji and France, all played at the Dairy Farmers Stadium in Townsville. Against Scotland they trailed by four points with 15 minutes to go before losing 32-11; they were within three points of Fiji at half-time until tired legs contributed to a second-half collapse and a 41-13 loss; and it was a similar story against France, who had enough in reserve to pull away and win 51-29 after only being a point ahead at one stage during the second half. Having enjoyed good backing from an appreciative crowd in North Queensland, Japan had to relocate to Gosford, some 2,500km away, for their final fixture against USA, which ended in a 39-26 win for the Eagles. 

Japan shipped 68 unanswered second-half points to Australia in their opening match at RWC 2007, but bounced back in style to give Fiji an almighty fright in Toulouse. In a thrilling contest between two sides intent on running the ball at will, the lead changed hands six times with Fiji eventually hanging on for a 35-31 victory. ‘Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant’, was the reaction of RWC 2003 winner turned TV pundit and England Rugby 2015 ambassador Will Greenwood after seeing Kosuke Endo finish off a length-of-the-field try against Wales in Japan’s next game: a 72-18 defeat in Cardiff. Endo was at it again in the final pool match against Canada, his superb score putting Japan 5-0 up. Canada fought back, though, and Japan had to rely on Shotaro Onishi converting Koji Taira’s injury-time try to level the scores at 12-12. 

Having been involved in only the second deadlocked match in RWC history, Japan and Canada featured in the third at RWC 2011 in New Zealand. Despite the 23-23 draw, Japan finished bottom of their pool for the fifth time in seven tournaments following earlier defeats to France (47-21), the All Blacks (83-7) and Tonga (31-18). 


Japan are the only team in Rugby World Cup history to have conceded more than 1,000 points (1,053), putting them ahead of Namibia and Romania who have the next highest ‘points against’ column. 


‘Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant’ ... Japan would be well represented in any Rugby World Cup video highlights package after scoring some outstanding tries, but none top Kosuke Endo’s length-of-the-field effort against Wales in 2007 that had Will Greenwood in raptures.


It is debatable whether anyone will ever beat the record 145 points New Zealand put past Japan at RWC 1995. 


"We needed to show that courage by continuing to play, continuing to get up and tackle. I think people warmed to us because they saw that courage on the field," - former head coach John Kirwan reacts to his side’s battling performance against France at RWC 2011, which, he hoped, brought some joy to the people back home who were still suffering the after effects of the devastating tsunami and earthquake earlier that year. 


In the first 10 matches of RWC 2007 the lead changed hands only once, when Wales came back to beat Canada. In Japan’s epic clash with Fiji, which ended in a 38-34 defeat for the Brave Blossoms, it happened four times in nine minutes and six times in total.