Joy to Watch

Brave Blossoms' attacking style thrills the World Cup on home soil

Jamie Joseph’s men have been the story of this tournament and delivered on a special night in Yokohama.

AFTER A HORRIFIC night for the country at the hands of Typhoon Hagibis, Japan’s Brave Blossoms delivered something to lift the nation.

Winning a rugby game will never come close to compensating for the loss of life, but the delight that Japanese rugby fans have taken in their team qualifying for the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time ever was clear no matter where you watched it.

japan-v-scotland-pool-a-2019-rugby-world-cup-yokohama-stadium David Davies Japan rocked the World Cup once again. David Davies

One can only be jealous of those fortunate enough to be inside International Stadium Yokohama as it heaved and throbbed and shook with celebrations during and after Japan’s instant classic 28-21 win over Scotland to secure their knock-out tie against South Africa next Sunday.

But all the way down in Fukuoka, over 1,000km away, the Brave Blossoms’ exploits had thousands of fans holding their breath, high-fiving, grabbing their heads at the missed opportunities and delighting in four brilliant tries. 

This was about more than the enraptured Japanese audience – this game will surely inspire future growth of the sport here – as the rest of the rugby world also enjoyed the thrills of Japan’s inimitable and effective attacking play.

The tempo of their attack is frenetic, with sublime scrum-half Yutaka Nagare whipping away bullet passes as rapidly as possible, but Jamie Joseph’s players always seem ready for the next phase. 

The brilliance of their highly-structured shape in attack is that it looks so fluid and natural, rather than restrictive. Always set to attack on either side of the ruck, each player on the ball invariably has more than one option.

Carry himself using sharp footwork, tip-on a pass, pull the ball back to a deeper-lying playmaker, slip the ball back inside – Japan’s organisation means there are usually team-mates waiting to receive or at least distract defenders with their presence. 

Japan’s supreme fitness seemingly allows them to make decisions on the ball without the muddiness of fatigue, as was the case with Timothy Lafaele’s inviting grubber kick to tee up left wing Kenki Fukuoka’s first try. 

The Japanese forwards don’t appear restricted in anything they do, with virtually all of them happy to catch and pass. Hooker Shota Horie is a genuine playmaker with his decision-making and passing skill, as well as being capable of mixing it in the physical exchanges. He typifies this multi-skilled set of forwards.

Japan’s attack is flat to the defence at times, holding depth at others. They offload, they push passes under pressure, they live on the edge – they play the kind of rugby we’ve been conditioned to believe is a ‘risk’ at the top level of Test rugby. 

japan-fans-celebrate-victory-after-the-game Craig Mercer / INPHO Japan have thrilled their supporters. Craig Mercer / INPHO / INPHO

In wing Kotaro Matsushima, Japanese fans have a real star in this tournament, though Fukuoka is very much in the same vein.

Incredibly, 27-year-old Fukuoka is set to retire from professional rugby after this World Cup to study medicine. He will be a loss to the sport, with 25 tries in his 30 Tests so far, his second tonight a pickpocket’s special that also allowed him to show his searing pace.

There were standout performers all over the pitch for Japan against the Scots, with back row Kazuki Himeno once again underlining that he is one of the best players in this World Cup, although special mention must go to Michael Leitch.

Repeatedly battered, the 31-year-old kept coming back for more, his work-rate hard to fathom at times as he simply kept plugging away intelligently in the 15-metre channels, where he is such a menace with and without the ball.

Japan regularly played into those channels, with the width of their attack fatiguing Scotland as it had done against Ireland earlier in Pool A, dragging defensive errors out of them and also sapping the Scots of energy for their fightback.

To be fair to Gregor Townsend’s side, they did thoroughly come back into the contest after it had looked like it could get ugly for them following Fukuoka’s second try, with their own version of wide-wide attack and an offloading game helping them to get back within seven points.

At that late stage, Japan were essentially guaranteed their quarter-final even if they slipped to a draw or even a very narrow defeat, but there was no sense of them easing off in front of the proud crowd in Yokohama.

Head coach Jamie Joseph deserves major credit for his stewardship of this achievement, having made the ballsy decision to largely keep his players out of the Sunwolves’ Super Rugby campaign this year and instead train towards the World Cup and tog out for the ‘Wolfpack’ B team.

japan-v-scotland-pool-a-2019-rugby-world-cup-yokohama-stadium David Davies The Brave Blossoms take on South Africa next weekend. David Davies

It was an unorthodox approach that flew in the face of perceptions about players needing to be battle-hardened, but this Japanese squad looks fitter than anyone and certainly have not shirked any physical contests.

Attack mastermind Tony Brown, who Leinster tried to lure to Ireland as head coach in 2015, has also seen his stock rise even further at this World Cup, with Japan’s multi-faceted, skills-based style of play wooing virtually everyone who has seen them play.

That tonight’s game even went ahead was a little difficult to believe, coming as it did the evening after Hagibis had caused devastation in Japan, and it was a testament to the organisational skills of the World Cup hosts, as well as their ceaseless work ethic.

All the effort was made worthwhile as the Brave Blossoms thrilled their way into a first-ever quarter-final.

The Springboks will fancy their chances of nullifying this Japanese energy next weekend but Joseph’s men have already shocked a fair few people in this home World Cup by winning four from four in their pool. 

Whatever happens next, the Brave Blossoms will keep on backing their daring attacking approach.

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