One of the main reasons why Japanese rugby has come as far as it has done in the last few years will be staring at the Brave Blossoms from the opposition dugout at Rugby World Cup 2023.

The outcome of Monday’s draw was to pair Japan in Pool D with Argentina, Oceania 1, Americas 2, and most intriguing of all, an England side now coached by their former mentor, Eddie Jones.

When the teams take to the field in just under three years’ time it will be as equals, but the same could not be said for their only previous encounter at the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987.

Beaten fair and square at the Concord Oval

Watched by a curious crowd of just under 5,000 spectators at the Concord Oval in Sydney, Japan were soundly beaten 60-7.

England not only dominated upfront as expected but also managed to score half of their 10 tries out wide, captain Mike Harrison scoring his only test hat-trick, while fellow winger Rory Underwood bagged a brace.

We don’t know when and where the teams will meet in 2023 just yet, but we do know it will be one of the most eagerly-anticipated matches of the pool stage, not the mismatch that it once was.

Jones, and his successor Jamie Joseph, have to take a lot of the credit for that.

Whether it is through his Japanese mother Nellie, his Japanese wife Hiroko, or his various coaching stints in the country, Japan has been hugely influential on Jones’ life. And by the same token, Jones has been hugely influential on Japanese rugby.

Finding the winning habit

Jones instigated the transformation of Japan from Rugby World Cup also-rans to one of the most feared teams on the planet when he was in charge of the Brave Blossoms from 2012-15.

He had briefly worked with the Japanese national team in the early days of professionalism but missed out on a coaching gig at Rugby World Cup.

But that proved to be a blessing in disguise. By the time Jones did get his dream job, a year after another Rugby World Cup tournament had passed by without a win, he had picked up invaluable experience at home in Australia, with the Brumbies and Wallabies, and elsewhere with the likes of South Africa, Saracens and the Stormers.

Japan had always been capable of playing good rugby. Even at the inaugural tournament, they threatened a shock when trailing pre-tournament favourites Australia by only three points at half-time. Australia eventually woke from their slumber to win 42-23.

But victory in their final pool game against Zimbabwe at Rugby World Cup 1991 was as good as it got for the Brave Blossoms over the next 28 years, as they embarked on an 18-match winless run.

Draws against Canada in consecutive tournaments, in 2007 and 2011, hinted that the Brave Blossoms were slowly getting to grips with the new world of professional rugby. But Jones’ arrival was the real catalyst for change.

Breaking into the Top 10

When the former Randwick hooker took charge of his first game against Kazakhstan in April 2012, Japan were ranked a lowly 14th in the World Rugby Men’s Rankings. In just over two years, they broke into the top 10 for the first time ever on the back of a 10-match winning run which included a maiden victory over Italy.

“Japan look well-placed to make an impact at Rugby World Cup 2015,” were the prophetic words on the World Rugby website.

Jones’ incredible work ethic resonated well with the Japanese players, who were put through their paces like never before.

Players were set to work on weight training from five in the morning in order to bulk up and overcome the genetic disadvantage that Japanese rugby had always battled against.

Nothing less than 100 per cent effort was acceptable in Jones’ eyes and players were driven to the limits, both physically and mentally, in a bid to draw a line under past failures.

Stronger and fitter, Japan’s high-tempo game became far more effective and, in his first game in charge in Almaty, Japan didn’t kick the ball once and ran from everywhere in an 82-6 win.

Ups and downs

“It was fun trying to change the team from a side that was seen as a joke to being a force in world rugby,” he told Rugby Journal in a recent interview.

“We had ups and downs and had a good group of players, and we did things completely differently.

“It was good to then see the change and that’s not only the rugby community but in the country itself. Rugby now has gone from a boutique sport to one of the major sports.”

Japan’s momentous victory over South Africa in their opening match of Rugby World Cup 2015, the so-called ‘Miracle of Brighton, elevated the sport to a new level. A fifth of Japan’s population (around 25 million) watched the broadcast of Japan’s next win against Samoa.

Not content to double their win tally from the previous seven tournaments in barely a fortnight, Japan also accounted for the USA in their final pool game.

However, an earlier defeat to Scotland meant they became the first team to win three pool matches yet miss out on the knockout stages.

Once Jones left to take on the challenge of turning England’s fortunes around, Japan continued to progress under Joseph and the on-field leadership of captain and talisman, Michael Leitch.

The admission of the Sunwolves franchise into Super Rugby was also an important step in bridging the gap between student and club rugby and the international arena.

At first, it was hard to imagine Japan bettering the achievements of 2015 in 2019, even as the host nation. But the Brave Blossoms feared no-one by this stage and took out Russia, Ireland and Samoa before a famous victory against Scotland secured them a first Rugby World Cup quarter-final.

South Africa avenged their defeat from four years earlier in the last eight in what was the last time the Brave Blossoms took to the field.

Highlights reel

Jones, though, needs no reminding of how far Japan have come, both under him and Joseph.

Speaking at Monday’s Rugby World Cup 2023 Draw, Jones said: “I remember going to the 2015 World Cup and the only (video) highlight was (Japan) getting beaten by the All Blacks 145-17, and now you see a highlight reel of the World Cup and they’ve got their triumphs in there, which is fantastic for the country and fantastic for the sport.

“Japan is probably the most improving side in the world. They have just organised their domestic season so the national team will get priority, so they will be very well prepared.  

“They are giving hope to a lot of other countries, that you don’t have to be a traditional, established country to be successful in world rugby. I think that has opened the eyes of a lot of teams.

“Uruguay caused a massive upset in 2019 and there is going to be more of those.”

Naturally, Jones hopes his England side won’t be on the wrong end of one of those shocks in France.

But he does take great satisfaction in the role he played in helping the Brave Blossoms stand toe-to-toe with the best of them.

“I wanted the team to be respected and I think Jamie Joseph has done an outstanding job carrying that on. Now World Rugby have got a respected team from Asia which is fantastic.”

Read more: How former Japan captain Toshiaki Hirose is promoting the sport in his country through the ‘One Rugby’ movement >>