Brave Blossoms determined to honour memory of Japan's 'Mr Rugby'

South Africa quarter-final falls on the anniversary of the death of former captain and coach Hirao.

TOKYO, 16 Oct - Japan's players and coaches will have an added incentive to write more Rugby World Cup history against South Africa on Sunday - the anniversary of the death of a true legend of their game. 

Seiji Hirao, a former captain and head coach of the national team, died three years ago this Sunday from cancer, aged 53.

Known as "Mr Rugby", Hirao won 35 caps and represented Japan at three Rugby World Cups - 1987, 1991 (as captain) and 1995. He went on to coach them at the 1999 tournament.

Full-back Ryohei Yamanaka, above, who was managed by Hirao at his club, Kobe Steelers, said: "It's the date he passed away, so there'll be a game on an important day for me as well." 

Scrum coach Shin Hasegawa has particular reason to remember Hirao's influence on his career. "I'm a bit emotional talking about Hirao," he said. "He was the one who picked me for the national team, he was the one who played me. We have a game on a special day. I hope we can pay him back.

"The best memory is receiving a letter in my room a day before our opening match in the 1999 World Cup. It wasn't that long but had things that encouraged me and made me feel, I need to fight for this man. 

"I remember heading into the game with a good motivation. I asked him one time why I was chosen and he said, 'for the scrum, of course', so I really focused on it. He really kept his eyes on me and was a great coach."

Meanwhile, second-row Uwe Helu says his team have been inspired and energised by the passionate support they have received from the crowds during their World Cup adventure.

The electrifying atmospheres inside the stadiums as the host nation topped their pool, with four wins from four, to reach the quarter-finals for the first time have been a stand-out feature of the tournament. Seasoned rugby followers have said the noise and excitement generated has been comparable to anything they have witnessed at the highest levels of the sport.

Japan's wins over Ireland in Shizuoka and Scotland in Yokohama - the latter sealing their place in the last eight last Sunday - have been high-octane affairs.  

And Helu, who came off the bench for the final half-hour against Scotland, said he was still on a high from the experience.

"We always know that if we keep winning, lots of people will support us," he said. "It adds extra motivation. It's such a good feeling. They just give us more energy, that's for sure."

Although Japan famously defeated the Springboks in the "Miracle of Brighton" at the 2015 World Cup, they were beaten 41-7 in a warm-up match last month and the Boks are favourites.

Helu welcomes being cast in the role of underdogs. "We've already made our goal," he said. "No one expected us to make the top eight. We've already proved everyone wrong. 

"We love to give everything for our fans, knowing they will always support us."

RNS sg/ns/ajr