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Jonathan Bradley: Japanese rugby can reinvigorate the sport after becoming story of the World Cup

Potential market: Japan has been gripped with rugby fever
Potential market: Japan has been gripped with rugby fever
Lomano Lemeki (with Yutaka Nagare)

By Jonathan Bradley in Japan

In the stadium where Ireland's World Cup had been so brutally put out of its misery 24 hours prior, hope briefly flickered.

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At half-time, the Brighton Miracle threatened a repeat. Japan, buoyed by a home crowd unlike any other in rugby, had been rocked back on their heels early but weathered a Springbok storm and, having played the kind of rugby that invigorated a tournament when seeing off Ireland and Scotland, were right in the game.

As is so often the case though, pragmatism strangled ambition. Former Munster boss Rassie Erasmus got his troops into the sheds at half-time and tightened up matters to the point that before and after the turn felt like two different contests.

Having done well to contain the inventive running lines and high octane style of Jamie Joseph's side, especially for 10 minutes with 14 men, the hour had come for a physical battering. Box-kick off nine and scrum them off the park, their lengthy rolling maul for Faf de Klerk's try a thing of brutal beauty. As Japan's dream died at their own World Cup, the tears flowed but the crowd remained, saluting the heroes that have captivated a nation of 120 million people these past five weeks.

No matter which of the remaining teams have two wins left in them, the Brave Blossoms are likely this World Cup's most enduring story.

Even in defeat the team's stars have been doing the rounds all week, appearing on the TV news and even as guests during the coverage of the Nippon Series, Japan's baseball championship which is currently ongoing in Tokyo and Fukuoka.

Michael Leitch - whose every touch brought fanatical cheers on Sunday night - and his visage remain ubiquitous, from murals in Roppongi to the big screens in Shibuya and even the front of crisp packets in every one of the endless string of 7-Elevens. Being a Japanese rugby player has never been more... recognisable.

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"It's been crazy," said Lomano Lemeki.

"Before the World Cup you could walk down the street and do whatever you want. You could walk down naked and nobody would (care). But after this World Cup, everyone knows who you are."

The key, given this once in a lifetime momentum, is what comes next. Japanese rugby has known for 10 years that it's been building to this month.

"It's our mission to work toward the next World Cup and keep up the popularity of rugby," said hooker Shota Horie, one of the tournament's stars. "What matters is how much stronger and better we can get from here on."

England's return for two Tests next summer is a start, but the country's sole Super Rugby franchise, the Sunwolves, were axed earlier this year, ironically in part due to the priority given to preparing the national team for this tournament when club stars were pulled from frontline action, while the likes of Fiji and Samoa - who have made their own impacts at past World Cups - are a cautionary tale of what can happen when regular Tier One opposition is found lacking.

On both fronts though, this week has offered encouraging signs.

A report in New Zealand suggested that SANZAAR (the governing body of rugby in the southern hemisphere) will be meeting in Tokyo tomorrow with both the Sunwolves' reinstatement and, even more interestingly, Japan's possible participation in the Rugby Championship on the agenda.

World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper has been quick to suggest that both the former Tri-Nations, which brought Argentina into the fold seven years ago, and the Six Nations should be fighting over Japan but, as pointed out by Erasmus, logistics are an obvious stumbling block - travel, time zones and TV deals would all have to be worked around.

For all the attention that will be rightly afforded to this weekend's semi-finals, it's these off-field developments that will have a longer-lasting effect on the game.

Rugby can too often feel like a closed shop, of interest to those who already enjoy it while preaching to the converted for all but a few weeks of the year. Japan 2019 has been something different.

For all the talk of the USA as a sleeping giant in the past, here is, to use the unfortunate phrase, a market that has already proven to be willing to embrace what is too often a local game.

That the Brave Blossoms have proved so popular, not just with the Japanese but with the rugby-watching world, shows that the reinvigorating potential of new blood is obvious.

This World Cup has felt unique in so many ways. For its hosts though, it's the routine that will ultimately prove the most vital.

Belfast Telegraph


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