brave blossoms

'We're grateful for the opportunity to inspire Japan and we showed that'

Japan aren’t finished in this World Cup yet after setting up a quarter-final with the Springboks.

TWO WEEKS BEFORE the World Cup kicked off, South Africa played Japan and hammered them 41-7 on a humid night in Kumagaya.

Watching that evening, few people would have guessed that Jamie Joseph’s Brave Blossoms would find themselves preparing for a World Cup quarter-final against the same opposition just six weeks later. 

kenki-fukuoka-celebrates-scoring-his-sides-fourth-try-with-team-mates The Brave Blossoms are on a roll. Craig Mercer / INPHO Craig Mercer / INPHO / INPHO

But Japan have rocked this tournament, first deservedly overcoming Joe Schmidt’s Ireland with a superb performance, and then beating Scotland last night with a thrilling display of attacking rugby to win 28-21 and make it four from four in Pool A.

Japan advance into their first-ever quarter-final as the first ‘Tier 2′ side to top their pool and Rassie Erasmus is likely to be at least a little bit nervous about facing a team with as much momentum, emotion and pure quality in their ranks as the Japanese.

For their part, Joseph’s side aren’t content with just hitting the milestone of reaching the last eight at this home World Cup.

“We’re very happy making the quarter-finals but we’re not finished and we’re not packing our bags and saying this is enough,” said Japan second row Luke Thompson last night.

“We’re playing South Africa and they’re a great team but we’re going out to beat them.

“That’s our challenge. Of course we’re not satisfied yet. We lost to them a few weeks ago but we are a much-improved side and we will get stuck in.”

Last night in Yokohama was an emotional and heady occasion for Japan and their supporters – both Japanese and, increasingly, from around the world.

The game was a major doubt to go ahead only hours after Typhoon Hagibis had torn through Japan, leaving a death toll which now sadly surpassed 30.  

rugby-world-cup-2019-japan-2821-scotland It was an emotional night in Yokohama. Rodrigo Reyes Marin Rodrigo Reyes Marin

Japan Rugby 2019 and the local authorities deserve major credit for ensuring last night’s game could happen at all, and the Brave Blossoms felt some responsibility to their nation when it was given the go-ahead.

“Before the match started at the team hotel, the players already knew how this game was more than just us, that a lot of people suffered in the typhoon for this game to happen,” said captain Michael Leitch after his team’s four-try win.

“There were guys up late last night with sponges. We are grateful for the opportunity to inspire Japan and we showed that for 80 minutes tonight.”

The entire Japanese squad felt the emotion of the occasion as there was a poignant minute’s silence before kick-off. 

“There must have been so many victims,” said outstanding back row Kazuki Himeno. “We’ll keep on working and give Japan courage through rugby, and getting the results.”

Thompson said the events of the night before the game, and the ongoing devastation caused by Hagibis, put rugby in perspective. 

“We are just playing a sport and if we can offer some hope or motivation or just a little break from the loss and sadness that some people are experiencing, that is a huge thing for us.” 

Japan march on in this World Cup with widespread support at home and abroad, with their style of play winning them many admirers.

rugby-world-cup-2019-japan-2821-scotland Japan are earning thousands of new fans. Rodrigo Reyes Marin Rodrigo Reyes Marin

Their skill level has been sensational to watch, their shape is highly impressive, while their sheer fitness is remarkable. Head coach Joseph pulled most of this squad from Super Rugby action with the Sunwolves this year, instead flogging them in extremely demanding training sessions and playing them in the Sunwolves’ B team, the ‘Wolfpack.’

“We have been to some dark places in preparation, pretty tough camps and that is modern rugby,” said Thompson, who is still motoring strongly at the age of 38. “You don’t go out and do that stuff by accident, you have to earn it.”

While the Boks will believe in their ability to limit the Japanese strengths and test them with their physicality and kick-pressure game, the Brave Blossoms are riding the crest of a wave and now possess real confidence.

“We know that South Africa are a massive team and well-coached but we are well-coached and super fit and it is going to be a great game and hopefully we can continue the momentum,” said Thompson.

“Hopefully, we are stoking the fires of a rugby blaze in Japan and there is a real buzz at the moment.

“We’re playing for more than just ourselves – we’re playing for the country.”

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