Around 500 fans were waiting for the Brave Blossoms at Haneda airport on Tuesday, dousing them in a flood of camera flashlights.
And then a couple of hours later, roughly 300 reporters and 30 television cameras gathered to report on the team and its heroes.
Hitoshi Ono, the team’s veteran lock, described it as “a scene that I’ve wanted to see,” in his long rugby career.
Though it was eliminated in the group stage of the ongoing Rugby World Cup, the Japan national team achieved a big feat in England, posting three wins, and its return to the home nation was certainly a triumphant one.
“I’ve been on this team for 12 years and have desperately wanted a win,” said the 37-year-old Ono, who extended his national cap record to 96 during the World Cup. “So there’s a sense of accomplishment in myself.”
Star fullback Ayumu Goromaru said: “One of our missions this time was to promote rugby in the country. I’m glad that we were able to complete the mission.”
But often popularity and fame get away quickly in sports. Right now, the national team players and the sport are enjoying the spotlight, and the stands will probably be filled with spectators when the domestic Top League begins in a few weeks.
There are no guarantees that it will last for long, however. Even with the next World Cup taking place on home soil in four years’ time.
The Blossoms players aren’t unaware of that. They know that their success at the World Cup was just a beginning, and that now they have to make the effort to keep it going.
While they vowed to give their all in the Top League and commit themselves to off-field and grass-roots activities, such as going to schools to teach the game to children, they insist that the national team and its victories are the most effective way of catching people’s attention.
“When the national team plays and wins, people who don’t usually watch rugby will watch,” forward Ryu Koliniasi Holani said. “And it’s important for us to play like national team players in the next four years (until they host the World Cup in 2019).”
Holani added that the Brave Blossoms have now proven they can compete with tier-one teams better than before.
“I think that if our games are televised like soccer games, more people will have interest,” he said.
Diminutive scrum-half Fumiaki Tanaka said that the national team should not let the current rugby boom fade away.
“A lot of people told us that they got interested in rugby this time,” said Tanaka, who stands at 166 cm. “And we don’t want those people to leave us.”
Prop Kensuke Hatakeyama was also confident in the sport’s ability to entertain an audience.
“Some people say the rules are complicated, but you don’t have to know all the rules,” Hatakeyama joked. “Not all of us here know all the rules. So we want people to come to the stadiums and get to know how much fun the sport is. You don’t need to know the rules at all.”
Ono, who wants to remain on the national team despite his age, said: “We want to turn the boom into a culture.”
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