Three World Cup wins and 25 million watching back home; it’s been a massive and timely three weeks for rugby union in Japan.
Set to host the next tournament in 2019 and with a Japanese side set to enter Super Rugby next year, Japan’s coach Eddie Jones spoke in the lead-up about how important a solid showing was for the future of the game in his adopted country.
Even he wouldn’t have expected the unprecedented success that was to come on the field and the huge surge in national pride back in Japan.
Arriving in the United Kingdom with only one previous win in the tournament – in 1991 against Zimbabwe – Japan caused the biggest sensation in World Cup history by beating South Africa 34-32 in their opening Pool B game.
With only a four-day break they fell 45-10 to Scotland, but a brilliant defensive display in a 26-5 victory over the powerful Samoa and an emphatic 28-18 win over the United States in Gloucester on Sunday capped off a breakthrough campaign.
Jones said Japan should be regarded as the team of the tournament if they got three wins, and with some justification for a side who has been on the end of some huge wallopings in past World Cups.
Their triumph over the US was somewhat tempered by the unwanted record of becoming the first team in World Cup history to win three pool matches yet fail to qualify for the knockout stages.
Nonetheless, it was a fitting sendoff for Jones, with the Australian – whose mother is half Japanese and wife Japanese – heading to South Africa to coach the Stormers.
“The guys have all played above themselves, they have worked hard, they played with a real spirit, they played how rugby should be played,” said the former Wallabies coach.
“I have done my job with Japan. When I took over Japan I wanted to bring pride back in the national team and I think we have done that so it is someone else’s turn to take it over.”
“Before this tournament, Japan were one of the joke teams. People put out B teams against them and win by 80 points,” he added.
“So to win three of four games shows the quality of players we have, and how hard we’ve worked to achieve this.
That pride was replicated back in Japan with a phenomenal spike in the TV ratings to 25 million for the Brave Blossoms’ two matches after the win over the Springboks.
“Maybe tonight, there were 30 million people watching in Japan – that’s the whole of the Australian population, plus the kangaroo population, New Zealand and all the sheep,” said Jones.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity for Japan to have a new generation of players, fans and heroes.
“They (players) have changed the image of Japanese rugby. When you have heroes, kids want to emulate heroes. This isn’t just about rugby. This is what sport can do. It can inspire kids, instead of playing baseball or soccer, to play rugby now.”
Jones is upbeat about the momentum continuing given the current squad has a solid slice of young players.
“Probably 60 per cent of this squad can go to the next World Cup, so the guy who takes over is going to have a good squad to work with,” Jones added.
Japan supporters among the 14,517-strong crowd wore kimonos, while some US visitors were dressed head to toe in Elvis Presley jumpsuits. One Japan fan had his body painted with a message thanking Jones.
The winning points came from Kotaro Matsushima, Yoshikazu Fujita and Amanaki Mafi tries, and the reliable kicking of fullback Ayumu Goromaru, who took his Test points haul beyond 700.
For the US, their points came through tries to winger Takudzwa Ngwenya and fullback Chris Wyles while fly-half Alan MacGinty added a conversion and two penalties.
As his teammates walked around the stadium to chants of “Nippon, Nippon,” Goromaru was overcome with emotion while receiving his second man-of-the-match award at the tournament.
Perhaps it’s World Cup organisers who should cry at Japan’s exit.