Japan’s home adventure keeps us all spellbound
Sport sometimes delivers glorious storylines, but few could have imagined the joyous ending to the one we were given in Yokohama last night.
It was a game that shouldn’t have taken place following the events of the last few days in Japan when Typhoon Hagibus hit, and hit hard. Three other matches were cancelled and this one was in doubt hours before kick-off. But it simply had to be played. It had to, and it was, and it delivered everything every Japanese sports fan and neutral watching around the world could have hoped for.
Japan, hurting from Hagibus, had plenty to cheer as their Brave Blossoms did what they had to against Scotland as they qualified for the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals for the first time.
They topped their pool with four wins from four and will now face the Springboks in Sunday’s quarter-finals in Tokyo (12.15pm SA time). And how fitting is that.
It was four years ago in Brighton, England, when Japan first announced themselves on the world stage when they shocked the Boks 34-32 in their opening Pool B encounter.
The Boks would bounce back and play in the semi-finals, but Japan, despite winning three matches, missed out by finishing third in the group.
As hosts, four years on, Japan are a much-loved side who have earned the respect of the rugby world.
They have played outstanding rugby under the guidance of Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown, and their wins against tier one nations Ireland and Scotland at the tournament are no fluke.
Their passing and catching and their speed of play have made them one of the most watchable teams in the world game and they are fully deserving of their place in the last eight.
Japan dominated a scintillating first half against Scotland yesterday and scored three wonderful tries, with the SA-born duo of wing Kotaro Matsushima and flank Lappies Labuschagne (or is that Labu-sake?) playing a big role.
Scotland hit back strongly in the second half to close to within seven points (28-21), but Japan, with their whole country and the neutral rugby-world cheering them on, hung on for the famous victory.
It was extraordinary, it was exciting, it was emotionally-draining. It was rugby at its best.
There is no doubt the Japanese players have crept into the hearts of many, including thousands of Bok rugby fans, but next weekend they will again be the enemy - and how utterly disappointing is that.
It is a quarter-final match-up few would have or could have predicted, especially after coach Rassie Erasmus’ team hammered the Japanese 41-7 in Kumagaya in their final warm-up match before the start of the World Cup.
The Boks were in a different class that day, but a World Cup quarter-final is so very different.
And the Boks won’t only be up against the 23 Japanese players on Sunday, and the 50 000 in the stands, they’ll also be up against the entire Japanese population of 127-million and probably every neutral rugby fan watching across the world, too.
Before the start of the tournament, Erasmus and Co would have taken a quarter-final against their hosts on any given day, but all of a sudden Japan have become a very dangerous opponent.
They’ve got momentum, belief and a real hunger, behind them now, and it’s going to take something truly special to stop them.
Oh sport, what storyline awaits us next?@jacq_west