DAVID BARNES in HAMAMATSU
THERE was a deafening roar, which didn’t subside but grew louder and louder instead with every step, as the Japan team marched off the pitch, in tight formation and holding each other by the shoulder, at the end of their warm-up for Saturday’s World Pool A clash against Samoa at the City of Toyota Stadium.
Michael Leitch (who had been relieved of match-day captaincy duty for the occasion, but who remains a totemic influence in the squad) led the way.
The game itself, did not go exactly according to plan for Jamie Joseph’s team, with Japan showing sparks of the magic which had stunned Ireland seven days earlier but also going off the boil for significant chunks of both halves. However, they got the job done in the end – scoring two late tries, including one in the fifth minute of injury time, to secure a bonus point which could be crucial in the final shakedown.
Debate will rage long and hard about the validity of that last try, which was scored by winger Kotaro Matsushima after Samoa were penalised at a scrum on their own line. The decision by Samoa to go for the set-piece in the first place, and the subsequent decision by referee Jaco Peyper to make a rare squint-feed call against the Pacific Islander, will both come under scrutiny at a World Cup where conspiracy theories are already running wild.
It was a pretty bizarre end to a compelling match, and the only conclusion we can draw with absolute certainty is that this Japanese team have reserves of stamina and courage – to go with their technique, organisation and pace – which means we still don’t quite know what they are fully capable of.
Afterwards, a group of senior players – including Leitch and captain for the day Pieter Labuschagne – had a long discussion on the pitch. Only they know exactly what was said but the general demeanour was of serious men with serious things on their mind. This isn’t a team dizzied by their achievements so far, it is a team that believes that they are in the middle of a mission which involves becoming the first Asian side ever to reach the last eight of a World Cup.
“We just said we should put that game behind us,” explained second-row James Moore afterwards. “We got the bonus point and we were happy with that, but we have to focus on our next game now. It’s the big one. It all comes down to that.
“We were obviously really happy after the Ireland game. But we all said it was not our final, and it was the same here. It was great that we won but we have to keep on building.
“Our game-plan changes a fair bit depending on what team we’re up against. We don’t just have one style of rugby and we will be able to adapt to Scotland. There is a lot of confidence in the team. It’s all about preparation for us, focusing on our preparations and trying to reach that goal.”
Fan power could be key
The noise in the City of Toyota Stadium on Saturday was phenomenal as just over 35,000 frenzied Japanese fans roared their side on – and you can bet your last yen that it is going to be even louder when the hosts take-on Gregor Townsend’s Scotland in front of almost 70,000 supporters in Yokohama next Sunday.
It is a factor that Scotland will need to be ready for, because although the host nation’s supporters are far too polite to be hostile to the opposition, their natural reserve does go out the window when it comes to getting behind their own side. With so much national pride at stake, the atmosphere is certain to be at an electrifying level which few – if any – of either team have ever experienced before.
“It’s unbelievable,” agreed Moore, who only qualified to play for Japan on residency grounds three months ago and earned just his sixth cap against Samoa, so is fairly new to the culture surrounding the Brave Blossoms.
“Japanese rugby fans are definitely the best in the world. When you’re out on the field you try to block it out and just focus on playing rugby, but sometimes it’s hard with how loud it is. Even in the warm-up, you’re pretty pumped up because of it. It’s a good feeling.”
In truth, rugby has struggled for a number of decades to permeate its way through Japanese society, meaning it still lags some way behind baseball, soccer, tennis, sumo, golf, motor racing, boxing and pro-wrestling, as well as several other sports, in the national consciousness.
But the team’s success on home soil means that this tournament is getting traction. While it was virtually impossible to find a bar, restaurant or café in Osaka showing either Georgia versus Fiji or the Ireland versus Russia on Thursday, the national press was plastered with images of Matsushima’s try this [Sunday] morning. For those who have bought into the sport, these are giddy times, and they are determined to make the most of it.
“It’s a little bit weird,” smiles Moore. “We usually go out for a coffee on game day, but we couldn’t leave the hotel on Saturday because there was about 1,000 people outside. It’s a bit like being held hostage, but it’s something we can deal with.
“There is a lot of pressure,” he added. “We’ve been saying we’re going to try and make the quarter-finals and that has always been our goal. So, there is pressure to fulfil that goal and there is obviously more pressure with this being a home World Cup.”
Japan’s sensational win over pool favourites Ireland in their second match has also ramped up expectation levels, both within and outside the squad, but Moore says the team are feeding off that. “Everybody realised: ‘Hey, we can really do this’. It gave us a lot of belief and confidence in our game.”
One reason why rugby continues to struggle to take grip throughout Japan could be that it is still seen very much as a foreign sport in a country in which 98 percent of the inhabitants are native Japanese. Moore was one of nine foreign-born players in the starting XV against Samoa, with four more coming off the bench.
“I played club rugby in Brisbane and had one season of the NRC but after that I looked to go somewhere else because I wasn’t getting any opportunities at the higher level in Australia,” explained the 26-year-old, who currently turns out for Munakata Sanix Blues in the south of the country. “A Japanese club picked me up and I just went from there. I’ve loved it over here.”
Moore is still struggling to learn the language, but there is no doubting the strength of the connection he and his fellow overseas players have forged with the team and the country. A victory next Sunday, will tighten those ties even further.