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SYDNEY — They came, they saw and they conquered the hearts of rugby fans from all over the world, but ultimately the Cherry Blossoms left Australia on Wednesday without the one thing they were craving for — a win in Rugby World Cup 2003.

On paper, it may just seem like another fruitless campaign for Japan, but the truth is Japanese rugby came a long way during the team’s three-week stay Down Under and the rewards may have an even bigger impact on rugby in Japan and Asia.

“Japan have won many friends with the brand of ru gby they have played and I am sure it will do their bid for the 2011 World Cup no harm whatsoever,” said International Rugby Board CEO Mike Miller prior to the game with Fiji.

While no official bid has been put in place, it is understood that former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori will be attending the semifinals and finals in Sydney and will launch Japan’s bid to host the 2011 event.

On top of that there have been a number of stories circulating the various press centers that Japan will have a team in the Super 12 competition from 2006.

While this has yet to be confirmed, Miller did say that the IRB was interested in doing what ever it could to promote the game, but that a final decision on the Super 12 would be left to the rugby bodies of South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.

Talk of a Super 12 team and the fact that Japan’s performances belied its present world ranking of No. 18 would have been laughed out of sight back in May when an appalling performance saw the Cherry Blossoms lose 43-34 to Russia in Tokyo, but the team has done a Lazarus-like recovery that had players and coaches, not to mention the large number of journalists following the team, amazed, perplexed and delighted.

At a function hosted by the premier of Queensland prior to Japan’s opening game, at which the Japan and Scotland players were awarded their World Cup caps, one Japanese journalist said he thought that Scotland would win by 40 points — “and that’s just at halftime,” he added.

Twenty-four hours later and the press box rose as one to clap the players off the field.

“I have no idea where that performance came from,” said flyhalf Andy Miller after the game, as the Japanese players went out for a well-deserved drink with the relieved Scots.

Fitness and conditioning coach Gary Wallace said that the team had started to change its mental attitude at the training camp they held in Okinawa the week before leaving for Australia, but he had feared that it was too little, too late.

“We have changed nothing in the way we coach and train the guys. They have just taken it upon themselves,” the genial Queenslander said. However, he did say that a number of senior players had been turning to him about defense and his “blitz, balance, smash” system finally seemed to have been understood by the players, who averaged 77.8 percent of their tackles, amassing an amazing 431 tackles from 554 attempts in the four games they played.

The results will show that Japan’s third game was its worst of the campaign, but that does not take into account the schedule that has angered a number of the smaller nations.

Japan was forced to play Fiji just four days after taking on France and, as a number of players were unable to move for a couple of days following the game with the French, preparation was limited to say the least. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the Cherry Blossoms then had four days in which to travel well over 1,000 km and prepare for the game with the U.S.

The game at Gosford once again highlighted the tremendous support the Japanese had, and the players helped their own cause with their friendly off-field demeanor. Readily approachable wherever they went (and more than capable of communicating with the locals), the players and staff were also seen at the grounds handing out souvenir fans to their newfound followers.

Their final night in Australia was spent at the Rugby Clubhouse — a bar that featured heavily in Channel Seven’s coverage of the event.

The welcome they received reflected the respect and admiration poured on the team, and the fact that captain Takuro Miuchi was quite happy to do a live TV interview with Chris “Buddha” Handy in English (it’s amazing what the old amber nectar can do), showed that the team had got over the disappointment of the loss the previous evening and was going to enjoy its new found fame and glory to the fullest.

The game with the U.S. marked the last of coach Shogo Mukai, a number of his staff and quite probably a number of players who have reached their sell-by dates.

Miller — who had been described by former Wallaby and Channel Seven commentator Greg Martin as “an outstanding prospect” despite the fact he has already announced that he will retire in March to become a kiwi-fruit farmer — spoke of the huge steps taken by the Japanese team and said he hoped the players would stick around for another year or so.

But Japan needs to start looking at 2007 and needs to bring in a new coach as soon as possible so that it can use the performances in this tournament as a stepping stone for future success.

“They have certainly come a long way,” said assistant coach Mark Ella. “They can play better if they are disciplined. They have the potential to go further but it will take a lot of work.”

The Japan Rugby Football Union also needs to take note of what happened in Australia and learn from it.

Following the loss to the U.S., Mukai was asked if he thought that Japan’s inability to start and finish games well was because the players were simply not used to playing high-intensity rugby and needed to work on their mindset.

While the former fullback evaded the question somewhat by simply saying that Japan hadn’t played enough of the big nations, Ella perhaps gave the best response, nodding in agreement and whispering “good question, mate.”

The Cherry Blossoms had shown for 60 minutes in each of the four games that they were capable of competing alongside the best in the world and part of that was down to the tremendous team spirit that the team had adopted.

Unfortunately, in all four games they let themselves down by giving away soft tries in the opening 10 minutes (as they seemed overawed by the opposition) and by giving away a couple of late tries, which ended up with a final scoreline that did not reflect the true nature of the game.

“It’s frustrating, we always let the opposition get a lead,” said Ella. “It takes us 15 to 20 minutes to get into it, but by then the game’s gone.”

While a Super 12 place may seem a good idea it would also be a case of trying to run before you can crawl. It would be far better for the team to go on tour to places such as South America and southern Europe and play sides of equal or slightly better level and reproduce the spirit seen in Australia.

Hiroaki Shukuzawa, the head of selectors, has said he would prefer Japan to play the Pacific island nations and teams in Australia as they are in the same time zone.

One-off tests are all very well for the likes of England but would be of no use to Japan. The England players spend over 200 days a year at training camps with Clive Woodward and only 130 or so with their club teams.

Japan needs to tour (and not just at the top level but at ‘A’ and Under-21 levels too) so the players can get to know one another and get to the stage where they will do anything on the field for one another. As the locals down here say “You do it for your mate.”

One other group that will hopefully have learned from Japan’s performance is the many fans who flew in to watch their team. Playing in front of a morgue-like stadium as teams often do in Japan does nothing to help the players rise to the occasion.

The noise and thunderous appreciation shown by the crowds in Australia was one reason the players managed to perform at a level they had never played at before. Fans in Australia and other parts of the world treat a big game as a real day out and do whatever they can to enjoy themselves in the hopes that it gives their players an edge.

It would be great if the spirit shown by players and fans alike was transported back to Japan — it’s just what the game that is played in heaven needs in the land of the Rising Sun.

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