While Japan’s first-ever quarterfinal match at the Rugby World Cup will be remembered as a new page in the sport’s history, it will also serve as a time to revisit the accomplishments of former playmaker and coach Seiji Hirao who helped lay the foundation for the team’s success at the current tournament.
The Brave Blossoms face South Africa in Tokyo on Sunday, and the squad will not only be playing for the nation but also for the man dubbed “Mr. Rugby” who passed away three years ago to the day.
“It’s the date he passed away so it’s an important game for me. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for him,” said Ryohei Yamanaka, who plays for the Kobe Kobelco Steelers, the club that Hirao spent most of his playing and coaching career with.
Hirao has been credited with popularizing rugby in the 1990s when sports like baseball and sumo wrestling were considered the favorites among the Japanese public. He was also, before his death from cancer at the age of 53, a driving force behind the country’s bid to host the World Cup.
A Kyoto Prefecture native, Hirao won titles in all the major domestic categories, including seven straight All-Japan Championship titles from 1989 with the Kobe Steel club.
But he was always looking at Japan’s position in the world, and saw firsthand the country’s struggles against the powerhouses when he competed at three World Cups from 1987 before coaching the 1999 team in Wales.
As such he went from the ecstasy of the Brave Blossoms’ first World Cup win over Zimbabwe 52-8 in 1991 to the utter despair of a 145-17 defeat to New Zealand in 1995.
In an effort to improve the country’s presence at the 1999 World Cup, he opted to make use of the physicality of players of foreign descent, which drew wide criticism from rugby circles in Japan. Current Brave Blossoms head coach Jamie Joseph was a member of the squad, but the side was still unable to post a single victory.
While Hirao’s decision infuriated some, it built the foundation of the current Brave Blossoms side in which 15 players are of foreign descent, including New Zealand-born captain Michael Leitch.
“We haven’t discussed about him as a team, but I know many of the players have been talking about Sunday being the anniversary of his death. . . . It is a special day,” Leitch said.
It is not just the Japan players who remember Hirao fondly. Spectators gathered at the fan zone in Kobe during a recent pool game, in front of an exhibition featuring Hirao memorabilia.
“He was a man who even male fans would fall in love with,” said Katsuhiro Sawada, a local who came to the fan zone in September. “It’s really sad that a man so passionate about the sport passed away so young. He worked so hard to get the World Cup here.”
U.S. head coach Gary Gold, who coached the Steelers for one season from 2014, also talked about Hirao before he opened the Eagles’ World Cup campaign in Kobe.
“Fantastic memories of being here in Kobe and obviously working with the Kobe Steelers,” the South African said. “Obviously very, very fond memories of Hirao-san. . . .The only sad thing is that he isn’t here anymore.”
Hirao openly said he hoped the Rugby World Cup would change Japan’s position on the rugby map and he worked to promote the tournament after the country won the hosting rights in 2009.
“Hosting the World Cup will become a breakthrough moment for Japan. Rugby has lost the popularity it once had, and (staging the tournament) will help create a boom,” he said in July 2009.
“Japan has to have a lofty goal of reaching the knockout stage,” he added.
That came true as the Brave Blossoms advanced to the last eight by topping a pool that also included Ireland, Scotland, Samoa and Russia, with the streets of Japan full of red-and-white jerseys.
But Joseph’s men are still not satisfied, and do not intend to stop when they face the Springboks at Tokyo Stadium on Sunday.
Hirao will be looking down on proceedings with a smile on his face, hoping Japan’s run extends a little longer.