And so the fairytale has come to an end. Despite finishing off with a victory over the United States – their third in the competition – Japan narrowly missed out on a place in the quarter-finals.
By Matthew Hernon
Samoa gave them hope, leading for much of their game against Scotland, but a lack of discipline cost them and a three-point defeat meant that Japan were out.
There will be a sense of what might have been. Who knows what could have happened if the Brave Blossoms had more time to prepare for the Scotland game. Perhaps they could have been more ruthless against Samoa and secured a vital bonus point.
In the end, though, the overriding emotion will be one of pride. Japan exceeded expectations and then some. Their opening game against South Africa will long live in the memory – not just for Japanese fans, but for rugby fans in general. This was a matchup between the team with the highest win percentage in World Cup history against a team that had lost more World Cup games than anybody else. Eddie Jones talked about beating the Springboks, but nobody really believed it was possible.
I watched it in a pub in England that had two screens. Most people were there to watch the Premier league clash between Man City and West Ham. By the end, despite the fact that West Ham had caused a major upset by beating the league leaders, everyone in the bar had switched their attention to the rugby.
History beckoned for the Brave Blossoms. At the death they had a chance to kick for a draw, which in itself would have been a remarkable achievement. They decided to go for a scrum and were rewarded when Karne Hesketh went over in the corner to make it 34-32. That try will be replayed for years to come.
Eddie Jones’s men were the story of the first round. Their second game against the Scots would have hardly set pulses racing prior to the tournament, but now it was seen as one of the big matches of the group stages.
For 60 minutes it looked like another shock could be on the cards, but then Scotland played some excellent rugby in the final third of the game to move away from Japan and also claim a bonus point. Having just a three-day break after the South Africa match clearly took its toll on Japan, who tired in the last 20 minutes. In fairness Scotland had the same turnaround before their clash with America and still managed to win convincingly.
Japan now had a ten-day rest before the Samoa game. Some people suggested their bubble had burst. They had their moment in the sun against South Africa, and now things would return to normal. The Japanese players obviously hadn’t read the script. They completely dominated against the Samoans, effectively wrapping the game up by half-time. Admittedly they were helped by an undisciplined display by their opponents; however, it was a very impressive performance nonetheless.
Samoa played much better in their last match against Scotland. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough; Scotland held on at the end, which eliminated Japan. It meant the Brave Blossoms went into the US game without any pressure, and they produced another fine display, scoring three tries in a 28-18 victory. In doing so they became the first team in the history of the World Cup to go out in the first round despite winning three games.
They left the field to a deserved standing ovation. Most people’s second-favorite team, they’ve illuminated the group stages with some terrific rugby and given hope to the lower-tier nations. Four years ago they lost 90-0 to New Zealand in a match that Eddie Jones said was like “a training game” for the all Blacks. When he took over his goal was to make Japan competitive at the top level and that is what he has achieved. Along with his coaching staff, he had the team meticulously prepared for this tournament.
It will be interesting to see how they develop without him. Jones is now stepping down and the Japanese Rugby Association need to think long and hard about his replacement. It’s vital that Japan use this World Cup as a springboard and continue to progress. With the World Cup coming here in four years this is an exciting time for the sport in this country. Their aim in 2019 will surely be to reach the quarter-finals. A few weeks ago such a suggestion might have been scoffed at. Now, all of a sudden, it doesn’t seem so unrealistic.
Image: Rugby World Cup