It’s fair to say that Japan took their time to make a big impression on the Rugby World Cup stage. But, in the last two tournaments, they have arguably been the main success story outside of actually lifting the Webb Ellis Cup.
After 24 years without a Rugby World Cup victory and a tournament record 145-17 loss along the way, Japan pulled off the biggest shock in the tournament’s history in beating South Africa in 2015, before going on to make the last eight for the first time when they hosted in 2019.
The Brave Blossoms’ brand of exciting rugby makes them a pleasure to watch, but perhaps a team to avoid in the draw.
We take a look at Japan’s Rugby World Cup story.
RWC debut: 24 May, 1987 – v USA at Ballymore, Brisbane
RWC appearances: Played 33 – Won 8 Draw 2 Lost 23 – Points for 644 Points against 1,347 – Win ratio 24 per cent
Most RWC appearances: Luke Thompson, 14
Most RWC tries: Kotaro Matsushima, 6
Best finish: Quarter-finalists (2019)
Qualification for RWC 2023: Quarter-finalists in 2019
Most memorable match: It can’t be anything other than the ‘Miracle of Brighton’, Japan’s ground-breaking, odds-defying 34-32 win at Rugby World Cup 2015. Without a RWC win for 24 years and only one victory to their name in the same number of matches, against Zimbabwe, the Brave Blossoms weren’t given a prayer of upsetting the mighty Springboks. But Japan’s brand of high-tempo rugby caused South Africa no end of problems and they became victims of the biggest shock in Rugby World Cup history.
Iconic moment: On-field – the sheer delight on the faces of Japan’s players and fans as Karne Hesketh scored the match-winning try against the Springboks in 2015. Off-field – the moment it was announced the monumental clear-up effort in the wake of Typhoon Hagibis had not been in vain and Japan’s crucial pool match with Scotland would go ahead.
Low point: Conceding a record 145 points to the All Blacks in 1995.
Iconic player: Japan’s ‘Captain Fantastic’ Michael Leitch. Led Japan a record-equalling seven times at Rugby World Cup from the blindside, with an impressive win ratio of 71 per cent during his spell in charge. Born in New Zealand but regarded by the Japanese as one of their own. In 2019, a national poll named him the second most recognisable person in Japan, behind only the Prime Minister.
Record-breaker: Goal-kicking full-back Ayumu Goromaru became the poster boy for Japanese rugby after his exploits at England 2015. Goromaru scored a try in a record 24-point contribution in the win over South Africa and finished the tournament with 58 points from four appearances.
Did you know? In 2015, Japan became the first team to win three matches in the pool stages of a Rugby World Cup yet still fail to qualify for the knockout stages. They made sure of their historic place in the quarter-finals as hosts in 2019, topping Pool A with victories against Russia, Samoa, Ireland and Scotland.
Quote: “Looking back, since 2011 this team has grown so much, it’s scary ... we’ve now made history but what’s ahead of us is important. This (a quarter-final) is not the goal. Winning the next game is the goal. Win the next, then the next. What’s important is winning the game in front of us. We want to make even more history for Japan.” – Michael Leitch on Japan not being satisfied with a first-ever RWC quarter-final but hungry for more success