TOKYO, 14 Oct - All Blacks coach Steve Hansen was so impressed by Japan's magnificent surge into the quarter-finals of the Rugby World Cup that he is glad his champions have avoided the hosts in the last eight.
New Zealand's players, who were glued to the Japan-Scotland pool decider in their hotel team room, offered glowing tributes to a side that Hansen believes can no longer be considered a Tier 2 rugby nation.
"That’s a good way to play footy isn't it?" remarked the New Zealand coach, after watching the Brave Blossoms' 28-21 win on Sunday.
"It's worked against Ireland and it's now worked against Scotland and their other pool opponents, Samoa," he said.
"People have said, 'Who do you want to play?' Well, they're the in-form team, I'm quite happy they're on the other side of the draw."
The two teams are not able to meet until the final, an outcome which would be the dream scenario for the host nation, where the All Blacks are so revered.
🚨 EXCLUSIVE | Get the lowdown on the All Blacks preparation for the crunch #RWC2019 quarterfinal against Ireland from loose forward Sam Cane.— All Blacks (@AllBlacks) October 14, 2019
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Asked whether Japan were now among the elite teams in the game, Hansen added: "Without a doubt they would have to be considered (a Tier 1 rugby nation), they're playing and performing like a Tier 1 nation. They're now in the top eight in the world on performance and they're playing quality rugby."
Beyond that, Hansen felt the nation should be proud of their side after the traumatic events of Typhoon Hagibis in the build-up.
"What a marvellous thing for the tournament," he said. "They have given the game a boost, they've given Japan rugby a boost and they've given the Japanese people a boost after what was a pretty horrific weekend."
Hansen's men may have their minds on a quarter-final tussle against Ireland in Tokyo on Saturday but they took time out to savour Japan's triumph, with experienced flanker Sam Cane leading the plaudits as he noted: "The speed that the Japanese played at, the skill level….they're the real deal."
Anton Lienert-Brown, New Zealand’s centre who has been one of the players of the tournament so far, added: "Japan were outstanding. Their attack is right up there - it was awesome, it was quality - but to see them hold out defensively as well was very impressive."
Cane was particularly thrilled for Japan's totemic captain Michael Leitch, his former Super Rugby teammate with the Chiefs.
"He's a special guy," said Cane, of his old Christchurch-born colleague. "He is just a seriously impressive individual. People who know him, it probably doesn't come as a surprise, the success and leadership that he's brought to the Japanese side, but it's just huge reward for him personally as well to see his adopted home nation going so well because I know he puts in so much work."