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Japan puts bravery on full display at Rugby World Cup

by Rich Freeman

Kyodo

Eddie Jones was not a happy man last week when Japan was formally welcomed to the Rugby World Cup.

“They showed a history of Japan at the World Cup and it was terrible,” he said prior to the Brave Blossoms Pool B opener against South Africa.

“And then they asked do we want to see it again. It’s the patronization of Japanese rugby. They just say we are brave and do our best but can’t win. But I haven’t spent the last four years so we can be treated like a joke. We are not here to be a joke side, we are here to win games.”

Japan’s sensational victory over two-time champion South Africa over the weekend gave Jones the win he craved and will ensure his side will no longer be regarded as a joke.

The manner of the win will also ensure the words “Brave” and “Japan” continue to go hand in hand.

Japan captain Michael Leitch’s decision to forego a kick at goal in the dying seconds that could have earned his side a draw had most Japanese fans in the stadium pulling their hair in disbelief.

But his courage was vindicated when Karne Hesketh dived over minutes later to seal what many are saying is the greatest sporting upset ever.

But Leitch’s fearlessness was nothing compared to the bravery shown by the man who provided the scoring pass.

Back in December, Amanaki Lelei Mafi was lying in a hospital bed wondering if he would ever play rugby again after dislocating his hip.

But he made a miraculous recovery, and 40 minutes of club rugby for NTT Communications Shining Arcs was enough to persuade Jones the big No. 8 was fit.

Mafi marked his return to test match rugby with a last minute try as Japan pipped Georgia in its final warm-up game, before taking center stage when he came off the bench in the 45th minute on Saturday.

Time and time again he caused problems for the Springboks with his power and pace, before a good handoff and a well-timed pass put Hesketh away for the “try heard around the world.”

“Even when I had the serious injury I always stayed positive to do what I do and do the ‘Japan Way’, ” Mafi said following Sunday’s training session at Brighton College.

When asked what the “Japan Way” meant to him, Mafi said: “We didn’t want to draw. If we lose we can lose. ‘Japan Way’ is all about playing for the win. That’s why we made the decision to go for the try and get the five points.”

Mafi said the feeling when Hesketh scored was unlike anything he had experienced in his life.

“I just sat down after the game, thanked God and thought how making the decision to play for Japan (instead of Tonga) was the best decision I ever made in my life.”

Hesketh had high praise for the man who made the scoring pass.

“He has raw talent, raw power and speed,” Hesketh said. “He is a huge prospect for Japanese rugby.”

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