Japan depart World Cup as heroes

Date published: October 12 2015

For the first time in Rugby World Cup history, winning three group games isn't enough to make the quarter-finals.

Japan have without question been the team of the tournament at this Rugby World Cup and yet they will go down as the one of the unluckiest sides in the competition's history.

Looking back now their four-day turnaround between facing South Africa and Scotland stuffed their hopes of going unbeaten in the pool stage and making the last eight.

It was a bitter pill to swallow watching at Kingsholm last month when fatigue clearly set in for Japan after 50 minutes. Fast forward to Monday, the day when Japan will fly home as heroes, and that injustice tastes worse than ever. Given the right amount of rest they would have had an almighty chance.

Admittedly most of the 20 sides involved have had to deal with a short turnaround at some stage, some as short as Japan's, but watching a team who achieved greatness against the Springboks then wearily slip off tackles against Kingsholm felt so wrong.

That wasn't the real Japan – not the side who were dominant against Samoa and silenced South Africa through hard work and spirit not luck.

One of the eight sides left will go on to lift the trophy on October 31 and by then the exploits of Eddie Jones' men might have been slightly forgotten. But they mustn't be.

They have never been the biggest side, but Japan's attention to detail and excellent skills have been refreshing, not to mention the consistency of a number of key players.

Michael Leitch's leadership has been outstanding right the way through – he's also been the top carrier in the World Cup with 36 over the gainline – while he has been supported by a cast of clearly talented players in Shota Horie, Michael Broadhurst, Fumiaki Tanaka and Amanaki Mafi to name a few.

Mafi in fact typifies Japan's bolt from the blue. Speaking after he was forced to limp off against Scotland, following one of the finest 50-minute stints of the tournament, Jones explained how Mafi had been spotted playing second division university rugby and moulded into a tackle-wrecking number eight.

Japan hope that their success will unearth more talents like Mafi back home, something that's bound to happen given a record national audience of 25 million watched their win over Samoa.

Jones has turned Japan from no-hopers into a competitive outfit that are easy on the eye. Seeing the progress made with him in charge will no doubt make the nation pine for him to stay on, but the ink on his contract with the Stormers is dry.

He has left them with three wins out of four – a finish so few expected but also a perfect springboard for the 2019 Rugby World Cup which Japan will host.

Jones ended his time with the side at Monday's press conference by saying "it's been great fun", which is right on the money when it comes to summarising how it has felt watching Japan perform over the last few weeks.

They have been the stars of a Rugby World Cup that now rolls on without them. It would be wrong though not to mention Ayumu Goromaru, who finished the pool stages as the second-highest points scorer with 58.

His influence has spread off the pitch as he has become Japan's version of Jonny Wilkinson – a hero for millions of fans back home – after it was his trusty goal-kicking and solo try that kept them in the game against South Africa until the winning score from Karne Hesketh. His try-saving tackle on Scotland's Tommy Seymour was one Wilkinson have been proud of too.

All of those moments made his clear emotion after winning a second man of the match award following Japan's win over the USA strike a nerve.

Japan have given this World Cup everything. And the fact that we won't get to see them in the last eight is a huge shame when you consider how the schedule crippled their chances.

Let's hope their unrewarded heroics are now the start of something bigger. They have been a joy to watch.

by Ben Coles