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Jonathan Bradley: Japan is falling in love with the Rugby World Cup and is ready for another big upset

Famous night: Japan enjoy their stunning win over South Africa at the 2015 World Cup
Famous night: Japan enjoy their stunning win over South Africa at the 2015 World Cup
Eddie Jones
Jamie Joseph
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

Japan's efforts at the last World Cup were so noteworthy that they are now a subject for the silver screen.

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'The Brighton Miracle', which premièred earlier this month and can be streamed today, charts the story of how the Brave Blossoms went from oft-thumped minnow to tearing up the script and toppling one of the true superpowers when beating two-time world kings South Africa in the pool stages.

Not just the biggest shock in the tournament's history but that of the game, it remains one of the World Cup's true "where were you when..." moments.

A breath of fresh air for a competition where the lengthy round-robin can often feel a little too close to formulaic, it now seems (almost) perfectly normal that Temuera Morrison's IMDB page contains credits for both roles in Star Wars and playing now-England coach Eddie Jones, who was the mastermind behind the victory.

It can't be forgotten, of course, that in the very strictest sense, the magic moment counted for nought more than its own piece of history.

There was no Hollywood ending. Victims of a punishing schedule that saw them beaten by Scotland just four days later, Japan became the first side to win three games but fail to make the knockouts.

To break new ground with an appearance in the last eight, even on home soil, would still be considered an upset for a side who enter the competition ranked 10th in the world.

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Starting with Russia in Tokyo tomorrow, Jamie Joseph's side are not here to merely play welcoming host. A big win will be expected against European minnows to start the party, while their recent Pacific Nations Cup crown will have raised the expectation of victory over Samoa too.

Either side of the latter, they'll meet Ireland and Scotland, needing to beat one of the Six Nations rivals to have genuine hopes of progression.

Captain Michael Leitch, himself a central figure in that never-to-be-forgotten win over the Springboks, said recently: "You cannot be accepting of losing and going out there and doing your best and coming out of there without making the quarter-finals.

"We want to make the quarter-finals, but ideally we want to win the World Cup. That is an outrageous statement but it changes your whole behaviour. If you want to make the quarter-finals compared to if you want to win the World Cup, it changes your behaviour."

Japan were chosen as hosts long before beating the Boks of course, the so-called third biggest sporting event in the world pegged for its first trip to Asia more than 10 years ago at a meeting of what was then the IRB in Dublin. With the Olympics returning to Tokyo next year, and a potential $4bn boost to the country's economy mooted over the next two months, the business reasons for welcoming the 12-city, 48-game roadshow are plentiful.

Its legacy, though, will prove more challenging. World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper has already spoken of the tournament's potential to be a "powerful game-changer for sporting and social change in Asia".

It will be no more than talk if the spectacle is not embraced by the natives of the first non-traditional rugby power to host the showpiece.

Joseph, head coach of Japan, who notched their first ever World Cup win in Belfast when beating Zimbabwe in 1991, said: "We understand the responsibility that goes alongside being hosts.

"I understand that it's crucial for the ongoing development of the game in Japan that we play a brand of rugby that is exciting, attractive, great to watch and that will encourage young players.

"If you have a World Cup in any sport, the kids are going to be watching. And if we're playing really good, attractive rugby, and if we are winning, that's going to be an added bonus."

Thankfully the locals can't get enough of all things rugby in the early going. Even if the penultimate Sumo Championship of the year and race for the baseball play-offs are dominating sports pages, the face of skipper Leitch is becoming ubiquitous, looming over the famous Shibuya Crossing - and the interest isn't just in their own team. An amazing 15,000 turned up for a Wales training session, while the All Blacks were greeted with a Haka.

'The Brighton Miracle' is in the past. Japan is ready for the sequel.

Belfast Telegraph


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