YOKOHAMA – Japan qualified for the knockout stages of a Rugby World Cup for the first time Sunday on their ninth attempt, a remarkable achievement for a side that was regarded until recently as tournament pushovers.
The Brave Blossoms, who won all four pool-stage games in the tournament, only became a potential threat at the 2015 tournament where they finished with three wins including a victory over South Africa that was seen as one of the biggest upsets in rugby history.
Until the 2015 edition in England, they had one win, two draws and 21 losses since competing in the inaugural World Cup in 1987. That win against the Springboks brought the curtain down on a 24-year winless record since a victory against Zimbabwe in 1991 in Belfast.
The first Rugby World Cup in New Zealand and Australia was an invitational affair and Japan was, as it have been ever since, Asia’s lone representative. Their run ended with three losses against the United States, England and Australia.
The second World Cup in 1991 saw Hiroaki Shukuzawa’s Japan finally get their first points with a comprehensive 52-8 win over Zimbabwe in their last match.
The 1995 World Cup in South Africa marked Japan’s darkest hour as they suffered three big losses culminating in the Bloemfontein Massacre.
Japan lost 57-10 to Wales and 50-28 to Ireland before New Zealand ran in 21 tries in a 145-17 thrashing of Japan — a result more embarrassing given it was mainly a second-string All Blacks side.
There were high hopes for Seiji Hirao and his team in 1999 as they headed to Wales as the Pacific Nations Cup champions but once again they returned home winless. The World Cup in Australia in 2003 also saw Japan finish without a point to its name.
Japan’s 2007 campaign saw it finish up with a draw against Canada courtesy of a last-minute try by Koji Taira and conversion by Shotaro Onishi, and the two teams were to repeat the result four years later in New Zealand.
Then came the 2015 World Cup, where the Brave Blossoms under Eddie Jones opened their campaign with an incredible 34-32 win over South Africa that entered legend as the “Brighton Miracle.”
Though they lost their second game against Scotland, which came just four days after the Springboks game, they went on to beat Samoa and the United States.
But they became the first team to fail to advance to the quarterfinals at the World Cup despite winning three pool-stage matches, finishing third in Pool B behind South Africa and Scotland.