Sayonara Japan... Or Should We Say Welcome?
In front of a rapturous home crowd, Kenki Fukuoka collects Timothy Lafaele's kick, barely breaking stride as he rushes away from desperate Scottish defenders for the try. That could be it, 21-7 at half-time and Japan appear destined for the knockout stages. At the expense of the Tartan Army, the Japanese fairytale lives on. As years go by, nostalgic rugby fans the world over will reminisce on the 2019 Rugby World Cup. A tournament littered with controversy, most will instead choose to fondly remember the Brave Blossoms that stole our hearts. But as we bid adieu - or sayonara - to our RWC hosts, we also welcome them to the world stage. Shock winners over South Africa in 2015, now a bonafide rugby nation on the precipice of something great.
Sweeping aside all before them in Pool A, Japanese sprite, spirit and speed succumbed to a powerful, South Africa side in the quarter-finals. But as we say goodbye, we all hope this is not the end, but actually the start. Whilst the least the rugby world can do is bow and say 'arigato', how do Japan ensure that this momentum continues on into the future?
Rewind back to 2015, and on the back of a Bokka-beating wave of hysteria, Japanese rugby was welcomed into the elite sphere through the launch of the Sunwolves franchise in Super Rugby. The competition sought to build on the hype and with most of the national side now playing for the new franchise, the only way was up...right? Well, as the 2019 Rugby World Cup comes to and end, and Japanese rugby is at an all-time high, there is almost an immediate reason for it to crash back down. After failing to reach an agreement with tournament organisers, from 2020 the Sunwolves are no more. The platform that allowed Japan to build on that historical win in Brighton 4 years ago, gone just as it was needed most. Now, without an invitation to the Six Nations or the Rugby Championship, Japan's legacy appears in jeopardy. As the World Cup rolled on, week-by-week, Japan's squad set new benchmarks, new targets, new goals. After 2015, a third-placed group finish wouldn't suffice, and with a playing style suitably referred to as 'champagne rugby', Michael Leitch's men marched on to the quarter-finals with a desire to be the best they can be.
As new goals were set, these goals were recited almost like a magic spell by the Japan players and coaching staff. Winning over fans all over the world with their relentless and imaginative displays, Japan guaranteed their place in the 2023 Rugby World Cup and climbed to sixth in the world rankings. To put it bluntly, Japan are no longer a side with 'potential' to breakthrough, Japan are a legitimate and credible top-flight international side worthy of their standing. But, still their legacy remains in doubt. The idealist in all of us is hopeful that the Rugby Championship with accept Japan with open-arms - as it did Argentina in 2012 - but it remains to be seen whether this is a genuine possibility. That said, regardless of possible tournament inclusion, Japan still has a way to go at grassroots level to sustain its growth and success. Whilst stocks of the Japan team's shirt have sold out in the country and their thrilling win over Scotland attracted a television audience of 54.8 million domestically, the challenge is translating that enthusiasm into a conveyor belt of elite talent; where are the next 'class of 2019' going to come from? Whilst we await the inevitably spurious statistics of Japanese people that have discovered rugby over the past month, it is unlikely anyone will talk about the majority of the population who have no regard for the sport. A recent white paper reported that their are 100,000 people playing rugby in Japan. That's 100,000 out of a population of 126 million. In fact, that 100,000 is 0.18% of the audience that saw Japan triumph over Scotland.
This is partly the reason the RWC is happening in Japan in the first-place though. Not since the 1994 Football World Cup in America have we seen a sporting governing body gamble with it's major competition like this. The gamble came with a hope of opening up a new market in Japan, but that remained heavily dependent on the home team's performances. Japan more than played their part in World Rugby's gamble, now it is up to World Rugby to capitalise on the opportunity in front of them.
Support the growth of the grassroots game in Japan. Ensure that the Sunwolves are reinstated to Super Rugby. Get Japan access into the Six Nations or The Rugby Championship. Whatever it takes, make it happen. The rugby world is sitting on a cloud of inertia, desperate for it. In nightclubs, when the lights come on at the end of the night it is a rather sobering moment. But the lights are well and truly shining on Japanese rugby now, and rather than being a sobering moment, we are all thankful they have stepped out of the darkness so that we can see them.