Sayonara, Japan! Curtain comes down on a memorable World Cup

The Brave Blossoms’ stunning exploits were a real highlight over the past seven weeks.

WORLD RUGBY CITES the figures for the evidence of this World Cup being a success but those lucky enough to make it onto Japanese soil over the past seven weeks will have their own stories about what made it special.

Onsens, sushi, warm hospitality, sake, Shinkansen, the bright lights of Tokyo, ramen, shrines, temples, Kyoto, yatai, karaoke, teppanyaki, good manners, Osaka, tiny bars, kimonos, orderly queues, yakiniku, convenience store cans, Mario Kart, yakitori.

The list goes on and on, and that’s even before we talk about the rugby.

siya-kolisi-lifts-the-webb-ellis-trophy Siya Kolisi lifts the William Webb Ellis trophy. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

There were many highlights in that regard – from New Zealand’s heavyweight showdown with the Springboks on the opening weekend, through Japan’s stunning exploits in Pool A, to superb knock-out performances from the All Blacks, England, then the Boks. 

There were lowlights too, with cancelled games a major frustration at the time, although the furore was put into perspective when we witnessed the devastation caused by Typhoon Hagibis as it passed through Japan killing and destroying too much in its path.

The aftermath of the storm also saw the Japanese organisers pull off the incredible feat of ensuring Japan’s final pool game against Scotland went ahead only hours after Hagibis had thundered through, and what a game it was.

That stunning performance from the Brave Blossoms was this writer’s overall highlight, with Jamie Joseph’s side delivering a joyous performance on an emotional night with a new peak record TV audience of 54.8 million Japanese people also tuning in, underlining the local interest levels.

Though their journey ended in the quarter-finals against the Springboks, the major legacy of this tournament simply has to be Japan becoming a consistent contender at the top table.

That they will play England twice in July next year and then face both Scotland and Ireland in November is encouraging, and finding a place for them in the Rugby Championship in the coming years will be vital too.

Rugby simply needs more nations being genuinely competitive and the hope is that the longstanding powers in the game can act selflessly to ensure that happens. Everyone will benefit in the long-term from a more competitive sport.

the-ireland-team-dejected-after-the-game Ireland headed home earlier than hoped for. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

For Ireland supporters, it was another dispiriting World Cup as they crashed out without firing a shot in their quarter-final defeat to the All Blacks. The post-mortem will roll on with the IRFU’s review in the coming weeks and, as we have already discussed, everyone will need to be brutally honest in their feedback.

The Andy Farrell era will get underway with the Six Nations in around three months’ time but many Irish rugby fans will enjoy provincial rugby coming rapidly back to the fore with the Pro14 continuing and the Heineken Cup starting in two weekends’ time.

As for World Rugby’s review of their latest showpiece, there will be satisfaction with a first-ever World Cup on Asian soil, with the governing body saying that 99.3% of all available tickets were sold and 1.13 million people visited the official fan zones around the country. 

One of the key challenges looking towards France 2023 is pushing harder again for nations like Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, and the US to further make up the gap and, hopefully, compete for play-off spots.

It was superb to see Japan pulling off their shock against Ireland on an unforgettably raucous night in Shizuoka, then backing it up against Scotland, while the other major upset was Uruguay’s stunning victory over Fiji.

The Fijians gave it a fine rattle against Australia and Wales but losing to the Uruguayans undermined their campaign. If World Rugby can continue its improved funding of the Fijians and do the same elsewhere, the game will be better for it.

The worry that club rugby will continue to increase in importance always remains and seeing young players move between countries at younger ages is a concern but this was always likely to happen the further we went into professionalism in rugby.

kenki-fukuoka-celebrates-scoring-his-sides-fourth-try-with-team-mates Japan were superb to watch. Craig Mercer / INPHO Craig Mercer / INPHO / INPHO

This World Cup is a reminder of how this tournament can rally more interest than anything else in the sport.

Seeing South Africa unite behind Siya Kolisi and his team was moving, while witnessing the power of Japan’s campaign up close was compelling. Even the scale of the dejection, frustration and mockery around Ireland’s campaign shows that people care about World Cups.

There is so much work ahead for the sport if it truly wants to grow beyond its current station and the traditional nations, but those leaving Japan in the coming days will look back with fond memories.

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