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South Africa, Ireland, Scotland: Three times Japan shocked the rugby world
The Brave Blossoms have fast become specialists at upsetting the odds – especially on the biggest stage of them all: the Rugby World Cup.
In recent years, the Japan men’s national team has undergone what is arguably one of the most dramatic transformations the sporting world – let alone rugby – has ever seen.
One time holders of one of rugby’s least envied titles – the heaviest RWC defeat, a 145-17 loss to New Zealand in 1995 – Japan were a team never historically considered contenders on the international stage.
But all that would change in 2015. Japan caused arguably the biggest ever rugby upset when they broke South African hearts at the death in one of the great Rugby World Cup matches of all time. Then under the coaching of Eddie Jones – and more recently guided by Jamie Joseph to the top of their pool at RWC 2019 – the Brave Blossoms have since become adored by fans worldwide for their pulsating brand of running rugby, and, of course, their new giant-killer reputation.
Here we revisit that famous win over the Springboks at RWC 2015, plus the Brave Blossoms’ emotional victories four years later over Ireland and Scotland at their home Rugby World Cup.
South Africa v Japan, RWC 2015
Challenges in international rugby don’t get much bigger than South Africa – especially at a RWC. In 2015, the then two-time champions went into the tournament as clear favourites to go undefeated and top Pool B. If that didn’t end up being the case, many at the time would have thought it would be due to Scotland or Samoa outperforming the Springboks – certainly not Japan, who had not won a RWC game since 1991.
The two sides were set to meet on 19 September in the English seaside city of Brighton in the opening fixture of Pool B. Few watching on that day – bar perhaps Jones and his coaching staff – were expecting the events that would soon unfold.
Japan started the game quickly with their now revered energetic playing style, but soon fell behind due to the power of the Springbok pack and Francois Louw’s converted try. All was more or less going to script for South Africa until Japan’s stoic captain Michael Leitch went over on 29 minutes to put the Brave Blossoms 10-7 up. But just a few short minutes later the Springbok pack would dominate again, this time hooker Bismark du Plessis with the try.
Yet Japan never looked overawed by the occasion or indeed the scoreboard. Full-back Ayumu Goromaru was having an excellent day off the tee, keeping Japan’s score ticking over with penalty after penalty. The Springbok pack would again respond, however; Lood de Jager and Adriaan Strauss both piling over after half-time.
But Japan were still not beaten. Goromaru converted his own try after an excellent backline move to tie the scores 29-29 with just over 10 minutes left on the clock.
South Africa’s replacement fly-half, Handré Pollard, came on to kick what looked like the winning penalty on 73 minutes to prevent the upset. But Japan again came charging back. In the most nail-biting of finishes, which saw Leitch and Japan twice turn down kickable penalties for what would have still been a historic draw, replacement wing Karne Hesketh dived over in the corner to send all of Brighton – and really the majority of the rugby world – into delirium. Full-time: Japan 34, South Africa 32.
Japan would go on to win an impressive three out of four pool matches in 2015, but would lose out on a place in the last eight to South Africa and Scotland. In fact, the team became the first to win three pool matches and not reach the quarter-finals. Nonetheless, their performances at RWC 2015 would transform Japan's status on rugby’s international stage forever.
Japan v Ireland, RWC 2019
Four years later, Japan hosted Rugby World Cup for the first time. Despite being under new leadership, the Brave Blossoms had continued their momentum from 2015, recording a 30-10 victory over Russia in the tournament’s opening fixture.
Up next was Ireland. One of the pre-tournament favourites, the number two-ranked Irish kicked off with a near-perfect start: a 27-3 victory over Scotland forcing everyone to take note.
Despite Japan’s improvements, Ireland were still clear favourites heading into their Pool A encounter. But again, no one appeared to have told the Brave Blossoms this. Another fast-paced start from the hosts greeted Ireland, but the men in green would respond through first-half tries from Garry Ringrose and Rob Kearney. The Irish defence kept Japan at bay, but three penalties from fly-half Yu Tamura would keep them within a score at half-time.
Japan went into the second half in seemingly the only way they now knew how: with speed. Wave after wave of attack, set against a cacophony of noise inside the Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa, would follow. But it was only in the 59th minute that Japan’s pressure paid off. Replacement wing Kenki Fukuoka went over in the corner to give the hosts a well-deserved lead. Tamura converted and would step up again in the 72nd minute to put Japan 19-12 ahead and secure another historic win.
Japan were now two from two, with a stronger chance than ever before of reaching the quarter-finals for the first time; only Samoa and Scotland – the same two sides from 2015 – now stood in their way.
Japan v Scotland, RWC 2019
Quarter-finals or not, Japan’s victory over Ireland had already cemented rugby in the nation’s hearts. But the last eight was definitely the goal for the Brave Blossoms; another impressive victory, this time 38-19 over Samoa, put the hosts three from three.
Yet few were expecting the arrival of Typhoon Hagibis to throw the conclusion of the pool stage into doubt. The country’s biggest storm in decades swept through on 12 October, resulting in the cancellation of matches and leaving Japan’s Pool A decider against the Scots at risk. However, last-ditch efforts from tournament organisers enabled the much-anticipated contest to go ahead in Yokohama.
With emotions running high after witnessing the life-changing events of the storm, Japan led a powerful moment’s silence before kick-off. This time, the Brave Blossoms’ relentless start was very much in the script. But it was Scotland – who needed only four more competition points than Japan to progress and had never previously lost to the hosts – with the first points of the game through Finn Russell’s converted score.
But then came Japan. A first-half blitz from the hosts, with brilliant tries from Kotaro Matsushima, Keita Inagaki and hero against Ireland Fukuoka, put them 21-7 in front at half-time. Just three minutes into the second half, Fukuoka was at it again; the winger forced a turnover and sprinted for the line to leave Scotland in shock and on the brink of an early exit.
Scotland weren’t done yet, though. Quick-fire converted tries from WP Nel and Zander Fagerson cut Japan’s lead to seven with plenty of time remaining. The sides then went back and forth as they chased the victory and progression into the knockout stages.
Scotland battled to find a way through Japan’s defensive line as the match reached a dramatic conclusion, but the Brave Blossoms held out. Japan turned over a final Scottish attack and, to the beat of deafening noise from the home crowd, it was all over: Japan 28, Scotland 21. The hosts had made history, topping Pool A to reach a maiden quarter-final against, surprise, surprise, the Springboks.
The quarter-final proved a match too far for the Brave Blossoms, who were beaten 26-3 by the eventual champions South Africa in Tokyo. But history had already been made and a nation inspired by their heroes. Across both Rugby World Cup 2015 and 2019, the team had captivated the world and created a lasting legacy of rugby in Japan.