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Jonathan Bradley: From unforgettable fans to historic feats, Japan well and truly delivered

Just champion: South Africa skipper Siya Kolisi lifts the World Cup
Just champion: South Africa skipper Siya Kolisi lifts the World Cup
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

Ten years ago, the decision to bring the World Cup to Japan was met with understandable scepticism. Never before had the global showpiece, the money-maker that funds World Rugby, been taken to a non-traditional rugby nation.

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It's awkward when a host leaves a dinner between the appetiser and the main and, having won just one World Cup game in their history at that point in time - a 1991 victory over Zimbabwe at Ravenhill - an end to the then unbroken run of home sides making the knockout stages of the tournament seemed inevitable. Furthermore, would anybody care?

At that stage, foreseeing the rise of the Brave Blossoms in time for 2019 would have been akin to predicting that by the same date the host of The US Apprentice and a panellist off Have I Got News For You would be among the most powerful men in the world.

The Brighton Miracle win over South Africa in 2015 and the effervescent style brought by Michael Leitch and co on their way to the quarter-finals here all would have seemed wholly fanciful then.

This is a country with a vast sporting landscape - we were fortunate enough to take in some sumo wrestling and play-off baseball over the past weeks, while golf, tennis and, of course, football are all popular too - and there was a real fear that rugby, with an under-performing home team, would get lost in the shuffle.

In the end, the reality couldn't have been further from the misapprehensions.

Ireland were beaten on an unforgettable night in Shizuoka, while the sublime victory over Scotland in Yokohama, only a day after the widespread tragedy of Typhoon Hagibis, goes down as one of the most memorable moments in World Cup history.

Even after the Brave Blossoms were knocked out by South Africa at the quarter-final stage, the passion of the Japanese appeared undiminished. While the All Blacks naturally remained the biggest draw, the sight of local fans donning the jerseys of their adopted teams remained commonplace.

Ticket sales were above 99%, while 1.84 million poured through turnstiles from Sapporo to Fukuoka. Half the country watched on from home as the win over Scotland unfolded, while queues formed outside fanzones hours before kick-off. Japan, it seems, has fallen in love with rugby.

It's little wonder, then, that World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont was moved to declare that this has been "probably the greatest Rugby World Cup."

On the ground, it can be hard to gauge how it's played out for those at home, whether those rising bleary-eyed to watch pool games before work will feel the actual rugby has lived up to the uniqueness of the tournament and its location.

While the likes of Australia v Wales, New Zealand v South Africa and the emotional victory for Uruguay over Fiji in the tsunami-ravaged city of Kamaishi all provided moments worth getting up for, once again there were too many foregone conclusions in the pools, a trend that carried into largely one-sided quarters before the last-four served up one all-time classic and one all-time bore.

But while having become the first side to lose a game at this tournament and still be crowned come the final means that South Africa are not the most definitive of world champions, they are both a deserving and fitting one for this World Cup.

A tournament that was always intended to break new ground concluded with the sight of the Springboks' first black captain, a player born in the township of Zwide who watched the 2007 triumph in a tavern as his family didn't own a television, lifting the Webb Ellis trophy into Yokohama's night sky.

Moments and scenes such as this, people like Siya Kolisi, were no doubt what Nelson Mandela imagined when he first handed the World Cup over to Francois Pienaar back in 1995.

Twenty-four years on from their first World Cup, post-Apartheid, and it's the most diverse team in their history that so thoroughly demolished England in the decider.

A historically significant event in a historically significant location, unique winners for an unique tournament.

And now a long seven weeks have drawn to a close. The first of the Irish press pack arrived before Dublin got their hands on Sam Maguire to signal the end of summer; the last stragglers return to cities and towns preparing their Christmas lights.

By now, the comforts of home are calling loudly.

A proper cup of tea, a pint of stout, a night in one's own bed... they all seem close enough to touch.

Cold and wet winter nights at Kingspan Stadium are just around the corner too.

It's certainly been an incredible trip.

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