Japan is the land of mystery that proved a perfect place to stage Rugby World Cup

Evening Standard Sports 1 month ago

Seven weeks in Japan throws up its fair share of mysteries.

Chief among them is the fact that there is next to no litter and yet you can walk for miles with the wrapper of a Wasabi-flavoured KitKat (yes, they exist; and yes, they are tastier than they sound) in your pocket without seeing a bin. Escaping the labyrinthine ­Shinjuku Station is not the easiest thing to get your head around, either.

Well, Japan gave us a Rugby World Cup that confounded right until the last, too. There were upsets aplenty. Uruguay knocked off Fiji, then Japan beat Ireland. By the time the hosts beat Scotland, that was not considered an upset at all. In the knockout stages, England beat New Zealand to make themselves favourites, but no one told the Springboks. That South Africa became the first team to win the World Cup having lost a game said it all: the field was evenly matched.

At the end of it all, the Springboks are fine champions. The narrative in the build-up was that South Africa played stilted rugby and that an ­England triumph would be good for the game. That was proved to be nonsense when South Africa not only played with greater ambition in the final but did it with the most admirable spirit and unity imaginable.

World Rugby can be an unwieldy, unfathomable operation at times, but they deserve huge credit for bringing the tournament here. There are administrators in other sports who could take note of such enlightened but sensible management of the game. Taking the World Cup to the USA in 2027 seems too good an opportunity to shy away from.

The Japan team and the nation threw everything at the tournament and, at the end of it all, rugby has another major power. The whole country got wrapped up in their run to the quarter-finals and stayed along until the end. The beautiful red and white striped shirt has been sold out for weeks and became the tournament’s unofficial uniform. From Shota Horie to Kazuki Himeno, Michael Leitch (below) to Pieter Labuschagne, they are a team that captured the best of a nation — and perhaps redefined what it meant to be Japanese. 

The fun will roll on here. England tour next summer, playing in Oita and Kobe, and know they cannot afford to take Japan lightly. Every team knows now that Japan are a team that cannot be underestimated.

When, in years to come, we remember this tournament, it will be as the one that was strong enough to withstand a typhoon. October 12 was an awful day that devastated communities in Japan and to be among them was to have an appreciation of how piffling sport really is. But Japan dusted itself off and, with the sense of duty immense, beat Scotland in an unforgettable occasion. It would have been remarkable to play a week on, let alone a day, A minute’s silence at every game thereafter provided a poignant reminder that all was not quite rosy.

Of course, there are bugbears that need addressing for next time round. The bronze medal match needs sorting out. It served as a fine farewell for two momentous coaches and a series of champion players, but it is absurd from a player welfare point of view.

How about some Friday night quarter- and semi-finals? That would ensure that no team went into the biggest game of the tournament on less than a week’s turnaround, as South Africa had to on Saturday. The TV companies and their viewers would love it, too.

But this was a special World Cup, with a surprise round every corner.


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