Certain rugby matches take on meaning beyond who won or lost, how many points were scored or who crossed for the final try.
Japan’s win over Scotland at Rugby World Cup 2019 was one of those matches; an instant classic that rejuvenated a wounded nation and established the Brave Blossoms as a global power.
It was a match that might not have taken place at all.
Four days before the scheduled Pool A encounter at International Stadium Yokohama, Typhoon Hagibis, one of the worst storms to hit Japan in recent memory, appeared on the horizon.
The storm battered eastern Japan, causing widespread flooding, billions of dollars worth of damage and sadly led to the loss of at least 79 lives.
With their country reeling, Japan coach Jamie Joseph kept his players focused on the task at hand: beating the Scots for the first time in their history and bringing some much needed joy to the Japanese people.
Despite torrential rainfall and their training venue being flooded, Japan didn’t deviate from their preparations.
“The one thing that we did in the Japan team was be consistent with our training, whether that is snow, rain, thunderstorms or whatever,” Japan captain Michael Leitch told World Rugby.
“It was a big call to make for Jamie... For him to say no, ‘get your boots on’ and then we did a full day’s training in the wet, I think that was the key preparation that got us over the line in the end.”
A moment's silence is observed ahead of #JPNvSCO in solidarity of everyone affected by Typhoon Hagibis.— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) October 13, 2019
The typhoon was one of the largest and most powerful to hit Japan in recent years, causing significant damage, disruption and, sadly, loss of life. #RWC2019 pic.twitter.com/VNZ0f8SD4F
Clear game plan
With the worst of the rain gone and following outstanding work from the International Stadium Yokohama ground staff, the decision was made on Sunday morning for the match to go ahead as scheduled.
The atmosphere in the stadium was electric before kick-off. Japan stood on the brink of their first ever quarter-final and the crowd were expectant.
But things didn’t start according to plan, as Scotland’s Finn Russell scored the first try after just seven minutes.
With the fans quietened, Japan could have wilted but not if Leitch was to have any say in it.
“We talked about those situations, as a leadership group… we talk about it the night before that if they do score first, what are the key messages, how do we keep the boys focused,” explained the Japan captain.
“If anything, it created a bit more of a challenge to start on the back foot and claw our way back.”
The Brave Blossoms did more than just claw their way back. They roared in retaliation.
Japan scored with four sensational tries, each one seemingly more thrilling than the last, as they tore through Scotland with their unique, fast-flowing brand of attacking rugby.
Tries from winger Kotaro Matsushima, prop Keita Inagaki and two from the flying Kenki Fukuoka sent Scotland reeling.
“They were really clear and certain in how they wanted to play, whereas we were struggling with where our game was at. It was a credit to Japan,” Scotland’s captain Greig Laidlaw admitted to World Rugby.
“It’s really frustrating. We never functioned defensively on the night. We knew the way Japan wanted to attack, that loose brand of rugby and we felt if we defended properly that would play into our hands, but we never did that.”
Again, for Japan, preparation had been key to the onslaught.
“When Kenki Fukuoka ripped the ball out of some guy’s hands and scored down the line,” said Leitch, when asked about his favourite of the tries.
“We had done a lot of work in pre-season on hitting and ripping and to see it pay off was very satisfying.”
Despite a spirited late fight-back from the Scots, Japan held on to record an historic victory, qualifying for the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals for the first time, topping Pool A and eliminating Scotland in the process.
Yet the result meant more than just qualification for the next round. Japan’s win – and the thrilling nature of it – encapsulated the country’s resilience in the face of the typhoon.
Joseph, Leitch and the other Brave Blossoms had risen to the occasion.
“There was a lot of pressure on that game, but we flipped it and saw it as an opportunity to show what we can do to the Japanese public and to the world,” said Leitch.
“Japan had pretty much stopped and all eyes were on our team so we thought it was a great opportunity to showcase our stuff and show what we are about.
“In that game in particular, we were on fire.”
Japanese rugby will be hoping for similarly emotive and thrilling displays from their men’s and women’s sevens teams at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, when rugby returns to Tokyo Stadium with the men in action from 26-28 July, followed by the women’s competition from 29-31 July.
It is anticipated to be one of the most eagerly awaited sports of the Games, largely thanks to the inspirational efforts of the Brave Blossoms in 2019.