JAPAN ON THE RWC STAGE

Japan produced a Rugby World Cup shock like no other on the second day of the 2015 tournament when they defied odds of 80/1 against them to defeat two-time world champions South Africa 34-32 on an historic day in Brighton.

The vastly experienced Springboks fielded seven of the side that had lifted the Webb Ellis Cup eight years earlier but they could not deal with the Brave Blossoms’ high-tempo brand of rugby.

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With over 10 million people glued to their screens back home in Japan and the 30,000-capacity crowd at the Brighton Community Stadium on the edge of their seats, winger Karne Hesketh scored the match-winning try with only seconds remaining to enter his name into Japanese rugby folklore.

Further wins against the USA and Samoa saw Japan secure third place in Pool B, narrowly missing out to Scotland on a place in the quarter-finals. They became the first team to win three pool games and not make the knockout stages.

The Brighton triumph ended Japan’s 24-year wait for a Rugby World Cup victory, and set the tone for a tournament where the tier two nations consistently punched above their weight.

Previously on the world’s biggest stage, Japan had only managed to beat Zimbabwe, in 1991, and draw with Canada twice despite featuring in every single tournament.

Japan first took to the Rugby World Cup stage at the inaugural tournament in 1987, and they began 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 their first-half effort, which saw them go into the break just three points in arrears, and the co-hosts ran out 42-23 winners. 

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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 Hiroyuki Kajihara touched down after a brilliant run down the left flank by Yoshihito Yoshida.

Takahiro Hosokawa converted two of Japan’s three tries that day, to add to the nine points he scored in their opening 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. No-one knew than then that between Belfast and Brighton and all stops in between, Japan would fail to deliver another victory.

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 match at RWC 1995. However, their swansong was not a golden one as an All Blacks side, minus the prodigious Jonah Lomu, recorded the then biggest win (145-17) in RWC history. At least Japan had the consolation of crossing their feted opponents’ line twice through Kajihara, maintaining their record of scoring in every tournament match (nine) played to that point.

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 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 and a World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee, was one of very few highlights. 

RWC 2003 was a tale of ‘what might have been’ with Japan unable to sustain promising positions against Scotland, Fiji and France. 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 Townsville, Japan moved 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 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 draw 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). 

Eddie Jones came on board as head coach in time for England 2015 and briefly steered Asia’s champion team into the world’s top 10 ranked nations. By the time RWC 2015 kicked off, Japan has slipped down to 15th, but hopes were still high that they could deliver a better performance. No-one, perhaps not even the super-confident Jones, could have imagined the results would be quite so spectacular.

RECORD BREAKERS

A record 25 million Japanese – a fifth of the country’s population – stayed up late to watch their team overwhelm Samoa in their third game of Rugby World Cup 2015

HIGH

Brighton rocked at RWC 2015 as the first-ever test meeting between Japan and South Africa ended in a shock win for the biggest of underdogs.

LOW 

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

QUOTE, UNQUOTE 

“I'm too old for this, at 55, I should be in Barbados watching the cricket. But the history has now changed for Japanese rugby,” said an emotionally drained Eddie Jones after his side’s win over South Africa.

STATS-AMAZING 

Japan were one of only two teams, alongside the USA, at RWC 2015 to boast a 100 per cent record on their own put in at scrum-time. 


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