Rugby World Cup: Rising or setting sun for Japan?

2:25 pm on 16 October 2019

For all the red and yellow cards, the cancelled games and pointless posturing, this Rugby World Cup has been about Japan.

Kotaro Matsushima of Japan tries in the first half of the Rugby World Cup Pool A match against Scotland at International Stadium Yokohama in Yokohama City, Kanagawa Prefecture on October 13, 2019.

Japan's Kotaro Matsushima on the run in his Pool A match against Scotland. Photo: AFP /The Yomiuri Shimbun

Not the country, nor the people, but the rugby team. The Pool A-topping, Ireland and Scotland-beating, Jamie Joseph-coached Brave Blossoms.

Take that team away and there really hasn't been a lot to write home about.

But we assume Japan's playing role in this tournament ends here. That for all their heroic performances thus far, they'll find South Africa an insurmountable quarterfinal foe.

There would be no disgrace in that. Their's really has been a campaign to savour, leading Joseph to suggest Japan are now a genuine Tier One rugby nation.

As was said way back in 1987 about Fiji, after they made the quarterfinals. The same with Samoa in 1991.

Argentina finished third in 2007. In 2015 they were fourth. This time around they didn't even emerge from pool play.

This is Argentina who boast a credible Super Rugby side. Argentina, who are now an established part of The Rugby Championship.

We're talking about a well-resourced, traditional rugby nation who, despite stellar performances at previous world cups, have slunk off home like all the other minnows.

Rugby is better for having more elite sides. A Japan team who could regularly mix it with, or beat, the big boys would be fantastic, but how?

People are quick to suggest rugby's world order might be changing here and that Joseph's a genius and Japan are now a force to be reckoned with, but is that really so? History probably suggests otherwise.

Japan Rugby World Cup fans.

Japanese supporters at the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Photo: Photosport

That's not a throwaway line about rugby benefiting from more competitive teams. After all, that's surely the goal of everyone involved in the game's administration?

But you fear that, in four years' time, Japan will be a shadow of this side. That the Pacific Island sides will have descended even further into mediocrity and that even Argentina will still be a long way off repeating the semifinal appearances of the past.

As good as Japan's campaign has been, where's it going now? How's it being capitalised on?

Maybe Sanzaar aren't the greatest competition partners. Maybe they did want too much money out of the Japan Rugby Football Union (JRFU) to continue the Sunwolves' participation in Super Rugby.

Either way, the JRFU decided they could not keep funding the franchise and 2020 will be the Sunwolves' final season in the competition. Never mind the colour and interest they brought, nor the benefits the national side are reaping from the exposure to that level of footy.

Inclusion in tournaments such as Super Rugby and The Rugby Championship is not an absolute guarantee of success at world cups, but nothing ensures failure better than being condemned to the second-tier competitions that rugby seems to specialise in.

Canada have competed at every world cup, but it would be a stretch to say their rugby's gone anywhere in that time. At least, unlike Fiji and Samoa, along with Tonga to a lesser extent, Canada aren't going backwards.

Uruguay beat Fiji at this tournament, but where does their rugby go now? Georgia and Namibia produced creditable performances, but we all know they'll still just be plucky battlers next time.

Argentina's claims to Tier One status became so strong, that New Zealand, Australia and South Africa could no longer ignore them. But unless the clamour to include Japan grows similarly, they'll remain stuck in the Pacific Nations Cup with all the other battlers.

World cups can be tantalising things. Yes, for the very best sides, they're about excellence and legacy and being a world champion.

But among so many of the other sides you see promise. You see players who, with exposure to the right competition, could become genuinely world class.

Remember Zimbabwe and Romania? They were emerging rugby nations once.

Now it's Japan's turn. Their rugby has thrilled us at this tournament. Results are one thing, but the quality of the Brave Blossoms' football has been quite another.

Not surprisingly, with Joseph and Tony Brown on the coaching staff and Kiwis among the players, they've played rugby the way we in New Zealand think it should be played. A 15-man game, played at pace and with ball-in-hand.

There's been skill and ambition and, best of all, teamwork. But has it all been for nothing?

We all want Japan to kick on now. For as long as many of us can remember we've dreamed of changes to rugby's world order, for the influence and prominence of some of the Home Nations to wane and for other, smaller nations to shine.

Japan have done that here. They've not just beaten Scotland and Ireland, but embarrassed them too.

Your hope now is that this marks a permanent change. That never again will Japan be regarded as also-rans.

Sadly, the experiences of teams such as Fiji and Samoa suggest we'll look back on these Brave Blossoms and wonder what might have been.

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