Rugby World Cup 2019: Sayonara, Japan! New era awaits Brave Blossoms

By John Skilbeck 20 October 2019 189
Rugby World Cup 2019: Sayonara, Japan! New era awaits Brave Blossoms

Abandoned, crumbling stadiums and empty, cracked swimming pools. Plummeting participation and dwindling interest. Platitudes and empty gestures.

The reality of sporting legacy is it rarely delivers. A capricious concept dressed up as big-hearted altruism, often propagated by politicians fishing for likes; the cornerstone of bid documents, legacy can look great on PowerPoint but has little influence at pitch level.

Any nation can birth a sporting jamboree. The woozy thrill of conception is followed by a deliciously pregnant wait and then a rush of endorphins on arrival. Postpartum reality is rather more complicated.

Material legacy is often found in infrastructure – the road and rail and housing improvements that any responsible government should be carrying out, global sporting spectacle or not.

The real sporting legacies are bound up in memories created on the field, which is why Japan's Rugby World Cup will live long, despite Sunday's 26-3 quarter-final loss to South Africa; which is why the Springboks' 1995 home triumph - Nelson Mandela their 16th man - so resonated.

Even if the Land of the Rising Sun will not see its own heroes crowned as World Cup champions in Yokohama next month, their brand of attacking, running rugby has lit up the tournament.

By reaching the knockout stage for the first time, Japan piqued interest of millions who never previously gave rugby a second glance. Perhaps the Brave Blossoms themselves have peaked, after the huge investment it has taken to reach this point, to forge a team capable of taking on - and beating - some of the world's best. To guarantee Japan - a team who lost 145-17 to New Zealand at the 1995 World Cup - would not only avoid humiliation but become everyone's favourite second team.

Japan were named as hosts a full decade ago, and in tandem with world rugby chiefs signed up to an Impact Beyond 2019 legacy project, designed to grow rugby throughout Asia. The message seems to be that, despite Japan hosting a whole blimming bells-and-whistles World Cup, the sport still needs to be force-fed into the culture long after the tournament ends.

Investment in Japan's team has been spectacularly well-judged, with previous coaches John Kirwan and Eddie Jones building the platform for Jamie Joseph's current squad to dazzle a domestic and worldwide audience over the past month.

Over 50 million people in Japan reportedly watched the crucial pool win over Scotland. That is almost half the nation. Even more will surely have tuned in for the Springboks clash, viewers who will dictate the long-term positioning of rugby within Japanese sport.

Baseball is number one, with sumo, football, tennis, wrestling, golf, basketball and a host more traditionally ahead of rugby.

Next year the passion of the Japanese people will shift to Olympic sport, when Tokyo stages the 2020 Games.

They are spoiled for choice. We are all spoiled for choice.

Rugby has made a breakthrough, Japan gave the world a team to adore in the Blossoms, but not every great show needs an after-party. Despite a rash of giddy think pieces - meta - Japan really aren't on track to rival the All Blacks.

Perhaps they will flower again in four years' time; perhaps the screaming, roaring fans that packed out Tokyo Stadium on Sunday will have more reasons to celebrate in France.

But after this success was created with precision tooling, enormous wads of yen, and awash with a strong flavouring of imported delicacies, now is surely the time for Japanese rugby to be left to evolve naturally.

Perhaps this isn't the start of something big. Perhaps it's the end of something big. The miracle of Brighton. Six World Cup victories in a row. Sassy wing twins Kenki Fukuoka and Kotaro Matsushima.

Sayonara for now, Japan. You played your part supremely well.

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John Skilbeck

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