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Japan's love of the game is exactly what World Rugby needs

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Cherry Blossoms, Brave Blossoms, conquerors of the sweeping furor of sporting talent that is the Springboks (yep, we’re still talking about it) – whatever you want to call them, the Japanese Rugby Union team are a tour de force in World Rugby, and we absolutely should not forget it.

Image credit: Wiki Commons

The ninth hosts of the Rugby World Cup, Japan will make history in 2019 as the first territory in Asia play host to the tournament. While many are reporting this to also be the first time the tournament is being held outside of the “heartland” of the sport, the Japanese team bring all the heart, soul and passion you could possibly want to the international game.

With a rich cultural history of rugby being played in treaty ports as early as 1866 and participation in their first international game against a Canadian team in 1932, the Brave Blossoms have had a taste for the ruck since way back when. While not distinctly classified as a ‘national sport’, the game has drawn in hundreds of thousands of fans since the early 2000s. 

In 2011 they began to show real dominance, with gargantuan wins over Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga, that led them to victory in the 2011 IRB Pacific Nations Cup. Later in 2014, under Eddie Jones’ authority, the Brave Blossoms won a string of ten consecutive test matches to rank in the world’s top 10. Just a year later, we were graced with their joyful, spellbinding win over the Springboks. It was reported by the BBC as “arguably the biggest upset in rugby union history” and reinforced Japan’s sensational underdog narrative.

Despite their impressive record in the Pacific and Asian territories, Japan are yet to really be taken seriously across the world stage, having not made it past the group stages in the World Cup. However, it’s important to reflect on their performances against monumentally better-funded and supported teams and their rise to where they are today. Faced head-on by giants such as England - one of the most well-established teams in World Rugby whose players’ daily salary is just over 150 times more than the Japanese team – South Africa, and the All Blacks, Japan consistently show togetherness, coherence and exude a pure, unadulterated joy for the game of rugby.

Image credit: Flickr

Bolstered by the raw power of players such as previous Captain Michael Leitch, and dynamic try-to-conversion abilities from full-back Goromaru, the Japanese game is often characterised as flighty, fast-paced and with a light-handed touch. And with the way the modern style of rugby is changing (looking less to time-consuming scrummaging and back-and-forth kicking and more to a fast, consecutive flow to the game) it’d be hard to imagine Japan’s naturally swift approach feeling out of place next year.

Maybe, just maybe, 2019 will be the year that Japan can make it out of the group stages, but whatever happens, we’ll be rooting for these endearing underdogs.

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