Japanese players received a heroes’ welcome on their return home on Tuesday after their stunning Rugby World Cup campaign in England.
Although they failed to make it through the qualifiers, Japan came away with three victories including an astonishing win over South Africa in their opening game.
They became the first nation to take three group games but still not reach the quarter-finals.
After the team flew back to cheers from fans gathered at Haneda airport, coach Eddie Jones hailed the Brave Blossoms as “new sporting heroes”.
“What a fantastic achievement for the team,” he said in a nationally televised media conference at a Tokyo hotel ballroom, a rare treatment for the sport in a country where baseball, sumo wrestling and football reign supreme.
“They have changed Japanese rugby. Everyone talks about hard work. I worked hard. But more importantly, they played with courage, not only physical courage but also mental courage,” said the former Australian coach.
“To finish the tournament ranked 9th in the world, to finish ahead of countries like England is an absolutely amazing success story.”
Japan sent shockwaves through world rugby with their opening 34-32 win over South Africa – the biggest upset in tournament history – before losing 45-10 by Scotlamd.
But they bounced back with a 26-5 win over Samoa and beating the United States 28-18.
Previously, Japan had only won once at a World Cup, against minnows Zimbabwe in 1991.
But Jones said his team could not rest on their laurels.
“Like any success story, the next chapter is so important. The next chapter for Japanese rugby is making sure finding new players with more talent and desire, and make sure this group of players keep improving,” he said.
The national team’s performances also gave the country a timely shot in the arm after they had looked in danger of losing their hosting rights for the 2019 World Cup.
Brave Blossoms captain Michael Leitch said he was looking ahead to the 2019 World Cup on home turf.
“We were not able to reach the quarter-finals as we set out to do, but to win three times at the World Cup was truly a giant step for Japanese rugby,” he said.
“This team has established a culture of winning. I want to pass this to the next Japan national team,” he said.
Fullback Ayumu Goromaru, whose unique stance before firing his precision kicks captivated the attention of the global rugby community as well as the non-rugby playing Japanese public, expressed his gratitude for playing in the World Cup.
“I was 19 when I was called to the national team. It took me 10 years to play in the World Cup.
“It was a fun and incredible time. I am happy that I had an opportunity to share that moment with people in Japan and the world.”