Rugby

Japanese fans celebrate Brave Blossoms' historic victory over Ireland at Rugby World Cup

by Jim Armstrong

AP

Japanese fans celebrated their team’s stunning upset of Ireland at the Rugby World Cup with everyone from the prime minister to rivals paying tribute to the historic win.

A day after the hosts toppled Ireland 19-12 in one of the tournament’s greatest upsets, Japan was basking in the glory of yet another historic win at rugby’s showpiece event.

“It was a big victory made possible by teamwork,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wrote in a Twitter post. “Thank you for a tremendously thrilling game.”

Japan captain Michael Leitch, who came on as a replacement against Ireland, said the atmosphere at the Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa was unrivalled in his career.

“I’ve played in a few stadiums, won in Brighton against South Africa and also played in Twickenham but that was the best stadium I’ve played in in my life,” said Leitch at a news conference on Sunday.

In addition to the sold-out crowd at Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa, thousands of supporters crammed into fan zones around the country to witness the match. Bars and restaurants in Tokyo’s bustling Roppongi entertainment district were overflowing with fans wearing the red-and-white jersey of the Japanese team.

The largest-ever single-day Rugby World Cup fanzone attendance saw more than 120,000 fans witnessing the match while millions more watched on TV and followed the game on social media.

Ireland was ranked No. 1 coming into the tournament so Saturday’s win mirrored Japan’s famed defeat of two-time champion South Africa at the 2015 World Cup, dubbed the “Miracle of Brighton.”

The result saw the host nation jump to a record-high of No. 8 in the World Rugby rankings.

Japan won three games at the 2015 tournament under Australian coach Eddie Jones, including the stunning 34-32 victory over the Springboks, and narrowly missed out on a place in the quarterfinals.

Japan has set a goal of making the top eight for the first time in the history of Japanese rugby. After wins over Russia and Ireland that now seems well within reach for Jamie Joseph’s team.

Players and coaches in rugby’s top tier also took note of Japan’s upset win.

“It is really important for Japan to effectively back up 2015 and their coaching team has done a great job building that team over the four years,” said England’s forwards coach Steve Borthwick.

“There is a lot of competition for sport in Japan and every time I have come back since 2015, you see the growth of rugby and popularity. There is an expectation they can win and that is great credit to the coaching team. It’s good rugby to watch and they play to their strengths.”

Japan is the first country outside of the traditional rugby strongholds to host the World Cup, which started in 1987 with a tournament held jointly by Australia and New Zealand. The tournament has also been hosted across Britain and Ireland, France and South Africa.

“We knew how tough it was going to be,” Ireland captain Rory Best told Kyodo news agency after Saturday’s game. “Anyone that has ever been shocked hasn’t seen how good they are.

“We came in with a game plan, we felt we were really prepared. Credit to them, they played really well. We made a few mistakes, a few unforced errors, we were on the wrong side of the penalty count. I think Japan played really, really well — they posed a lot of questions to us and unfortunately we couldn’t come up with the right answers.”

This year’s Japanese team includes a record 15 descendants of non-Japanese. While that’s within the tournament’s eligibility rules, some in Japan have refused to accept the team as being truly representative of Japan.

But with wins over South Africa and Ireland even the skeptics are getting onboard.

“It’s pretty impressive,” said long time baseball fan Shigeru Uchida, who runs a sports fitness business. “Even though the team is not entirely Japanese they showed incredible teamwork and I’ll certainly watch their remaining games.”

Meanwhile, the commissioner of Japan’s Sports Agency said the win should have a ripple effect on Japan’s preparations to host the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“I can say the Japan team has rewritten sports history,” said Daichi Suzuki. “The win also gave an immeasurable momentum toward the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics next year.”

Japan’s next game in Pool A is against Samoa on Oct. 5 in Toyota before it takes on Scotland in Yokohama on Oct. 13 in its final pool game.

“This tournament is shaping up to be something very special on and off the field,” said World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont. “Japan’s victory has excited a nation and captured the imagination of the world with exceptional social and digital media reaction. This tournament is big in Japan.”

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