The Glory of '95: The Brave Blossoms rise from the ashes of Bloem hiding
In what is possibly the biggest upset in rugby, and definitely in a World Cup, Japan pulled off their greatest victory on September 19, 2015 in the seaside town of Brighton, England when they humbled the mighty Springboks 34-32 in their World Cup Pool B opening game.
The victory stunned South Africans and neutral rugby observers across the world, but for Japan it was a triumph never achieved or experienced before.
Guided by experienced coach Eddie Jones, Japan also pulled off wins against Samoa and the USA (with the one loss against Scotland) but sadly the world’s latest favourite team failed to progress from their pool, finishing behind South Africa and Scotland. Their performance at the at the 2015 Rugby World Cup was a triumph, and they would go one step further four years later, when they hosted the 2019 showpiece in their own country and qualified for the knockout stage - for the first time.
With their home fans behind them, the Brave Blossoms were inspired as they powered past Russia in the opening game of the tournament and then also beat Ireland, Samoa and Scotland to stunningly top Pool A with 19 points. Japan were every other nation’s “second favourite team”, and reaching the quarter-finals was an achievement to be celebrated in every corner of the world. Their fabulous journey would be ended though by the very team they beat four years earlier to announce their arrival on the world stage as a proper player: South Africa.
Japan though had gone further and performed better than anyone expected. They ticked off every goal they set out to achieve and won over the rugby-watching world.
Japan have shown in the last two World Cups that they are no longer whipping boys. And not the team that were given a record 145-17 hiding by New Zealand in South Africa at the 1995 World Cup - now 25 years ago.
On a chilly June 4 day in Bloemfontein, the All Blacks - hot favourites to win the 95 World Cup - ran in a whopping 21 tries against Japan. Marc Ellis scored six of them, Eric Rush and Jeff Wilson three each, and Glen Osborne and Robin Brooke two each. The other five-pointers came from Richard Loe, Simon Culhane, Craig Dowd, Alama Ieremia and captain on the day, flank Paul Henderson. Culhane slotted 20 conversions.
It was a scoreline nobody wanted to see; not at a World Cup; not at any level of Test rugby.
Japan though were still very much a second-tier nation at that stage. While they played at the two previous World Cups, in 1987 and 1991, and would go on to feature at every tournament since then, it was only in 2015 that they became a real factor in the game, a team to be taken seriously.
Up until they beat the Boks in 2015 they played 24 World Cup games and only managed one win - against Zimbabwe in 1991 (52-8). Twice they drew with Canada (in 2007 and 2011), but suffered 21 defeats.
In their last two tournaments, Japan have played nine matches and won seven - an excellent turnaround and an achievement brought about by the influx of foreign coaches and players in the last 10 to 15 years.
One of the first “outsiders” to fly into Japan and help lift the standard of the domestic game was Jaco van der Westhuyzen, the former Bok flyhalf and fullback, who turned out for the Bulls and Sharks.
He joined the NEC Green Rockets in 2004 when playing in Japan was frowned upon and thought of as a bit of a joke, and played there until 2010. He said it had been great to see how far Japanese rugby had come in the last few years.
“The game was still semi-professional when I got there and there were very few foreigners, compared to now,” said Van der Westhuyzen.
“We trained only in the afternoons because most of the guys worked in the mornings. I enjoyed it; I was kind of like a pioneer in a way, and what I enjoyed is that we could try out new things, unlike in South Africa where the coaches were very stuck and set in their ways.”
Van der Westhuyzen added that the quality of rugby was good, if not strong. “The standard was okay, but it lacked the aggression and the physicality one associates with rugby. It was a quick game, like it still is today,” the 42-year-old said.
Looking back at his time spent in Japan and how the Brave Blossoms have progressed gives Van der Westhuyzen a huge amount of joy. “I was in grade 11 in 1995 when Japan got that hiding in Bloemfontein. I remember it well, so to see how far they’ve come to beating the Boks in 2015 and reaching the quarters last year fills me with happiness. There’s an emotional connection I have with the country and I’ll certainly always root for them, but not when they face the Boks,” he said.
Japan are currently ranked ninth in the world, ahead of Argentina, Fiji, Italy and Samoa, but with the Sunwolves cut from Super Rugby from next year there is fear that progress and development may now slow down.
“They need to get themselves into a top-tier annual competition,” said Van der Westhuyzen. “They deserve to play against strong opposition on a regular basis.”
Japan has finally woken up and with some of the game’s biggest stars now playing in the Top League, it seems the “shocks” of beating the Boks, Ireland and Scotland in recent times, may well become regular occurrences in years to come. Japan are no longer whipping boys or also-rans; they are very much the next big thing in the game.