TOKYO — All Blacks coach Steve Hansen is not one to hand out praise freely. So, when he says he is happier facing Ireland in the Rugby World Cup quarterfinals than playing Japan, you listen.
His comments stand for all of rugby. Over the last few weeks, we’ve fallen in love with Japan all over again. They won our hearts in 2015 in that ‘miracle match’ when they knocked over South Africa on the opening weekend of that World Cup, but now with their eye-catching rugby and inherent selflessness they are everyone’s second team. But behind closed doors, before the start of the tournament, they wanted to prove they were more than just a one-off upset. They wanted to be an established, respected, top-eight side in their own right.
When they woke up this past Monday morning after knocking off Scotland 28-21, they were ranked seventh in the world. But don’t for one minute think they are done. Their brilliant captain Michael Leitch hadn’t slept — he was already focusing on the next task. But for those lucky enough to be in the stands in Yokohama on Sunday night, it was like no other atmosphere in world rugby; they cheered scrum penalties like tries, roared for tries like they’d won the World Cup. No, you sense they are still revelling in this free-flowing crescendo of red and white fervour.
But this is no fluke. They have had to weather and understand defeats, they have planned their fitness meticulously and they have spent three years focusing on these five weeks.
ANONYNIMITY is but a long-lost memory for this Japan team.
Hundreds pack into the team hotel to welcome them back after their victories at this World Cup and when they are walking through a train station, the crowd parts like they’re royalty to beckon them through. To cope with this spotlight, their coach Jamie Joseph calls it the “noise”.
There are ways to combat the “noise”. Leitch had a coffee machine installed into his hotel room as he can’t walk out in public without being mobbed for autographs. You cannot overestimate his fame here. Head near any match venue and there are youngsters with drawn-on beards to replicate the national hero, now the second-most recognised person in Japan after Prime Minster Shinzo Abe. Buildings around Tokyo have 30-foot high images of him emblazoned on the side. His Café 64+ business in Tokyo has two-hour queues outside.
“If we’re honest, early in the week we limit that [the noise] as much as possible … and then we embrace it at the end of the week because it’s hugely motivational and we understand we are representing a nation,” Joseph said after having watched his team beat Scotland in their final pool stage match, booking themselves a place in the Rugby World Cup quarterfinals, becoming the first ever Asian side to achieve that.
On matchday, the “noise” becomes a wind in Japan’s sails. As you watched the precision of their attacking play against Scotland, and then the way in which they regrouped in the second half when the opposition was threatening a comeback, there was seldom any sign of nerves. It felt like you were watching a cohesive, self-dependant unit, built on mutual trust and respect with this ruthless cutting edge at its heart. Then come the reverberating, chest-thumping chants of “Nippon! Nippon!” from the fans. Or “Leeeiitccchhh” every time their talismanic captain carries the ball. The players find another wind and go again, or refocus and tackle with even more urgency and accuracy.
The journey to this realm of sporting harmony has not been straight-forward. The introduction of the Sunwolves into Super Rugby has been invaluable. Under previous head coach Eddie Jones in the 2015 Rugby World Cup, there were just three Super Rugby players in his 31-man squad with the other 28 from the Japanese Top League. Now, under Joseph, over half have had Super Rugby experience.
For all of that, though, the Sunwolves have won just eight of their 61 matches in Super Rugby. Such is the short-term vision of the sport, the Sunwolves will not have a seat in Super Rugby from the 2021 season, but their time in the league has proven invaluable, according to Joseph. It gave his players weekly exposure to the world’s best players while giving them time to understand differing styles of rugby — that they knocked over the chalk and cheese approach of Ireland and Samoa in this World Cup is testament in itself.
Every week the team has three focus-points. “The first one is putting in the energy, second is playing my role and executing it, and the third is intent,” revealed forward Uwe Helu. That second point has been so impressive in this tournament, with the team completely buying into and understanding the gameplan.
“I think the word attack is often reflected when you have the ball but we’re an attacking team on defence as well,” Joseph said after Scotland. “Quite often people remember where the tries came from but I remember the defensive line that created turnovers. Our gameplan was to keep the ball, control the speed of the game and attack certain areas. Persistence, confidence and trust in the plan saw us through.”
But behind this is a ruthless fitness regime that even made Eddie Jones baulk when Joseph told him they were aiming for 50 minutes of ball-in-play time. They’ve prioritised load management so Leitch and Lappies Labuschagne did not play a single game for the Sunwolves in the 2019 Super Rugby tournament while the brilliant fly-half Yu Tamura and outstanding hooker Shota Horie played fewer than half the games this year than they did the year previous. Instead, they were in conditioning camps masterminded by New Zealander Simon Jones, who used to work with NZ Rugby and the Southern Steel netball team. After their 16-hour days under Jones, the players were already well-versed in hitting the physical and mental wall and then powering through it.
“They’ve wrapped certain players in cotton-wool,” Peter Russell, the former coach of Top League side NEC Green Rockets, told ESPN. “And this allowed the team to grow as a group, spend more time together and learn from their individual and collective mistakes. What Japan have done so well is play to their strengths, and they got conditioned for the climate here. They know their climate, you can’t prepare for that, and they’ve used it to their advantage.”
Coupled with their impressive fitness is the tireless work of their coaching staff. Joseph forever tries not to single out players for praise, so it was noticeable that after the win over Scotland he mentioned each of his coaching staff.
“Building a team up doesn’t happen overnight,” Joseph said. “We had tough moments along the way. When I got the job, the hardest thing was working out how to work in the parameters I had — that took some time. I knew which direction I could go and I had no doubt I could achieve that with my coaching team.”
Tony Brown, the attack coach, has trusted the players to “go out and play footie” according to Joseph and gave them confidence and belief in the system while also fine-tuning their skillset, shown so brilliantly in their mesmerising tries against Scotland as props and locks exchanged offloads like they were Harlem Globetrotters. Also working in the shadows has been scrum and maul coach Shin Hasegawa who has helped turn an area of weakness into a strength. The roars that greeted Asaeli Ai Valu winning two scrum penalties against Scotland has shown how pride in the pack has become part of the Japanese rugby DNA. David Galbraith, Japan’s official Mental Coach, and Scott Hansen, the defence coach, also came in for praise.
All this plays out against the tapestry of this Japanese rugby team’s multi-national foundations — 16 of the 31 players were born overseas, across seven countries. Their wonderful second try against Scotland had contributions from all sides of the globe. But while they are drawn from different countries, they’ve all united under the Japan flag and culture — peroxide-blonde Tongan-born prop Isileli Nakajima took his wife’s name out of love for his adopted home. One of rugby’s great sights is witnessing Japan leaving the field in their arrow-head formation, each with hands on each other’s shoulders with Leitch leading from the front. This is not a team thrown together and landing on their feet by chance.
BACK-ROW forward Kazuki Himeno has been one of Japan’s standout players in this World Cup. He watched the 2015 edition and the Brighton ‘miracle’ against South Africa from his university room. Three years later he was captaining Toyota Verblitz, and found the original experience so mentally draining that his skin had an allergic reaction. But he grew into it, understood if he led by example that it would do the talking for him and realised his dream when he ran out against Russia in the opening match of this World Cup.
And just as that 2015 victory over South Africa played a key role in his own development, the hope is this World Cup will inspire the next generation of budding Himenos — their win over Scotland had a television share of 53.3 percent, making it the most-watched live event in Japan this year.
But while he remembers 2015, the rest of his teammates who were involved in that game are almost pleased to see the back of it.
It was previously hard to escape that past in Tokyo. After having walked through the arrival doors at Narita Airport, the first television screen you see is showing Karne Hesketh’s try for Japan against South Africa on loop. Memories of the greatest upset in the history of the game were still everywhere to see.
The early experiences of this World Cup were rooted in four years previous, but the team were frustrated at the perception they were defined by that win. That’s why that victory over Ireland was important on so many levels but on a very personal one as it was validation for their own ability and standing in world rugby. “Finally we’ll be freed from the South Africa talk,” scrum-half Fumiaki Tanaka said. “I want to now say, it’s not just South Africa, and we showed to the kids if you put effort in you can beat anyone.” How ironic it is that it should be South Africa, again, who stand in their way in Sunday’s quarterfinal in Tokyo.
They have their eyes set on bigger prizes rather than just a dominant pool stage performance. “Ideally, we want to win the World Cup,” Leitch said. “That is an outrageous statement, but it changes your whole behaviour. I guess we are going to have to try to win the World Cup and see how far we can get.”
And why doubt them. This is the most remarkable country — quite how they managed to get Japan-Scotland on just a matter of hours after Typhoon Hagibis ferociously hit the mainland only the locals know.
Joseph is now rightly regarded as one of the finest coaches in rugby. He, too, has to block out the “noise”, with his name now along the other top contenders for the All Blacks job. But he is far from done. And nor is his captain Leitch.
“We’ve managed to get to the last eight but what’s ahead of us is important,” Leitch said. “This is not the goal — winning the next game is the goal. Win the next, then the next.
“For the next game against South Africa, the most important thing is preparation. It’s another start, from zero. It’s important to build again from scratch. The daily accumulation will be important.”
He knows the “noise” is only going to grow louder as the Springboks lie in wait on Sunday with a place in the World Cup semifinals on the line. If they win that, it won’t be a miracle. It’ll just be part of this remarkable journey.