The Brave Blossoms arrived in Toulouse with the ambition of emulating their Rugby World Cup 2019 achievement of reaching the last eight. Michael Leitch, the 34-year-old veteran who has seen the good and bad of Japan, spoke on behalf of all Japanese rugby fans about the desire to "qualify for the quarter-finals overseas, to create new history".
But after the relentless battle with Argentina in Nantes, it was Los Pumas who secured second place behind England in Pool D. Many tears were shed on the field on Sunday, but the legacy of the battle-hardened veterans like Leitch will be carried on by some promising young talents. The journey for the Brave Blossoms to bloom again on the World Cup stage continues.
Try of the Tournament
Amato Fakatava, the World Cup debutant, proved his ability at test level and scored a few tries but one score stood out above the rest. Against Argentina, the second-row ran down the left wing and then showed not only his athleticism but footballing skills as he chipped and collected his own kick ahead to score a brilliant first-half try. Some have suggested his solo effort would be a worthy nomination for the try of the tournament.
Quote that said it all
Before the Argentina game, stoic prop Keita Inagaki said: ”For the Japanese, a long time ago, it was a tough thing for a Samurai to draw a sword, because it meant that either you or him will die, just two choices. I think where the team is now is really similar.“ Unfortunately it was the Brave Blossoms who dropped to their knees first on the pitch in Nantes, but that unwavering Samurai spirit, to fight right to the end, is etched deep within the Japanese team.
Man of the moment
Lomano Lemeki, the experienced full-back, slotted a superb 35m drop-goal late in the second half against Argentina. Lemeki, who has played for Japan both in sevens and 15s, made his Rugby World Cup debut against the same opposition - Argentina - in 2016. After the team’s loss on Sunday, he announced his retirement from international rugby.
One for the future
Saito Naoto made his Rugby World Cup debut against England and had his first start against Samoa after Yutaka Nagare was forced to withdraw injured. The well-prepared 26-year-old helped Japan to victory against Samoa with a promising performance that bodes well for the future.
Two great examples of letting actions speak louder than words. Kazuki Himeno, the number eight who leads the team, put his body on the line consistently and incredibly completed all 56 attempted tackles, as well as winning two breakdown jackals. Japan fly-half Rikiya Matsuda also kicked 11 of his 12 attempted conversion kicks at goal in RWC 2023.
Japan were a whisker away from qualifying for the quarter-finals, only trailing Argentina by a point at half-time in their final pool match. The team wanted to reach the last eight again, having achieved the feat for the first time at home in 2019, but they performed valiantly and have once again raised the profile of Japanese rugby.