The Land of the Rising Sun: Japanese Rugby

Every sport has its own “Mighty Ducks” story — one where a ragtag team of cast-offs appears to either mount a serious challenge or a shocking upset. In baseball, the Oakland Athletics, with their “moneyball’ continue to rewrite the rules of the modern game. In soccer, Greece’s national team, composed almost exclusively of second-tier players, went on to win the European Championships in 2004.

Although rugby was introduced to Japan in 1899, the country has never achieved real success in the sport. One of Japan’s most memorable results in the last century was a 23-19 victory against New Zealand’s second string team in 1968, an insignificant victory by any other team’s standards.

Going into this year’s Rugby World Cup, not much was expected of Japan’s team. They had performed poorly at previous World Cups and, on top of that, they were not particularly physically imposing — one of their best players, scrum-half Fumiaki Tanaka, was the shortest player going into the tournament at just 5 foot 5 inches. However, Japan did have one card up their sleeve: their coach.

[pullquote speaker=”” photo=”” align=”left” background=”on” border=”all” shadow=”on”][Japan’s victory over South Africa] could best be described as a “Mighty Ducks” story, if “The Mighty Ducks” ended with thousands of Japanese rugby fans in tears. It was the perfect example of a team’s dedication and work ethic allowing them to punch far above their weight, and boy, did they do just that.[/pullquote]

Eddie Jones is generally considered to be one of the better coaches of modern rugby. He was instrumental in leading Australia to the 2003 World Cup final, where they lost to a last minute drop goal (the equivalent of a field goal in football, only in rugby, the player attempts to drop-kick the ball in between the two rugby posts) in extra time. He then went on to serve as a technical advisor to South Africa’s team in their 2007 World Cup triumph. During the tournament, Jones was praised as being key to South Africa’s success. Four years earlier, while coaching in Australia, Jones had received an offer to coach Japan’s team, which he had turned down, but this time, fortunately for Japan, he accepted.

It didn’t take long for Jones to make his mark on the team. He began by eschewing the foreign players imported by his predecessor and encouraging the local players to find their own playing style.

Furthermore, Jones drastically improved the team’s fitness, declaring them the fittest team in the World Cup, which some pundits agreed with.

Through all of this, it is worth noting that Japan’s team itself was generally composed of players plying their trade in the local league. While still professional, the league lacks the prestige of England’s Aviva Premiership or the Super Rugby League, a league composed of teams from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Despite all of this, just a few months into his tenure, the appointment of Jones as coach already looked like a masterstroke by the Japanese Rugby Union, with Japan winning a game on European soil for the first time against Romania.

Having qualified for the World Cup, things began to look up for Japan as they seemed to come together as a more cohesive and exciting outfit. Japan had improved almost every facet of their game, but being placed in a tough group with South Africa and Scotland looked like it would surely end Japan’s hopes of an even decent outing at the World Cup.

South Africa has been a rugby powerhouse for essentially as long as the sport has been around. Their rivalry with New Zealand is a perennial talking point in rugby circles, and they were already favorites coming into the tournament, with some of the better rugby players in the world on their side and decades worth of experience, having won the quadrennial championship twice since its inception in 1987.

According to senior Ren Makino, a Japanese rugby fan, it is ultimately the cultural divide that separates the two nations out. Japan’s status as a rugby team could almost be compared to that of the U.S. soccer team. While both exist and have a professional league, they are not particularly popular. In contrast, South Africa’s major teams participate in an international rugby league that is hugely popular. The sport itself is by far the most popular in South Africa, with around 650,000 registered players and countless more unregistered ones.

The Japanese rugby league was established in 2003, and having only been around for 12 years, it is still in its infancy. However, the Japanese league is home to over three quarters of the Japanese national team. Considering the fact that the league is still slowly edging its way to a professional level, this left many of the players with little to no outside experience playing at the highest level. Although this could have worked in Japan’s favor, where most of the players played for the same team, there is such an even spread across the league that the players had little experience playing together outside of the national team.

However, it is interesting to note the history of rugby teams in the country itself: most of them have been around since the 1920s. The Kobe Steel Kobelco Steelers, the first ever winners of the new Japanese rugby league, were founded in 1928. It seems bizarre, then, that with a governing body (the Japanese rugby union) founded in 1926 and a decent quantity of teams founded before 1950, that Japan would not have had a professional league before 2003. Not only this, but Japan currently has the fourth largest population of rugby players in the world and is the only team outside of the “Six Nations” (England, Italy, Ireland, Wales, France and Scotland) to have a seat alongside New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Canada on the World Rugby Executive Council.

The answer comes in the form of company teams. Yes, company teams. A phenomenon relatively unknown in the U.S., company teams were formed in Japan as a way of encouraging bonding within a corporation. These teams were originally formed to be composed solely of players from a specific business, usually one of the larger ones in Japan, and played against other teams from other companies at a purely amateur level. These teams usually took on the name of their company. For example, the aforementioned Kobe Steel Kobelco Steelers are actually named after the Kobe Steel corporation, founded in Kobe, Japan. The steelers were formed in 1928 to serve as the company rugby team for Kobe Steel, but as with most modern Japanese professional teams, the Steelers became open to non-company players once they joined Japan’s Top League. However, vestiges of their previous purpose still remain in the form of the name of team. As opposed to modern U.S. team practices, Kobe Steel does not actually have to sponsor the team, because that is simply their founding name. For a U.S. example, let’s take the Pittsburg Steelers. Imagine if the Pittsburg Steelers were bought out by Nike, so that they had to change their name to the Nike Pittsburgh Steelers. However, the Steelers would still be able to maintain their original name, or the ‘Pittsburgh Steelers’ part of the name. ‘Kobe Steelers’ works in much the same way for the rugby team.

So these company teams, while having been established decades ago, only played at an amateur level against each other without any league structure governing the way they organize their games.

However, the story does not end there, because the question of university teams still remains. University teams are just what they sound like: university sponsored teams. The only difference is that university sports in Japan are not quite as big as they are in the U.S. However, university teams, much like in the U.S., predate any professional-tier teams. For example, one of Japan’s most successful university teams happens to be Waseda University, which, having been founded in 1918, is also the oldest team in Japanese rugby.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of Japanese rugby is actually the way it evolved at such a fast rate. Rugby, it seems, has had a decent presence in Japan. In 1932, when the Canada national team toured around Japan, their meetings with the Japanese national team drew crowds of around 25,000. While this would already be an excellent turnout for any modern professional team, it is absolutely breathtaking for a team in 1932 Japan, without the sort of advertising power or public presence of a modern team, to attain those spectating figures. To give a rough idea of what that means in modern terms, it is about 5,000 less than average Major League Baseball viewing figures and around 7,000 more than the average attendance for the National Hockey League and the National Basketball League in America.

This popularity does not seem to have fallen off, as Japan currently ranks fourth in the world in terms of the population of rugby players, with 125,000 currently playing.

The popularity of Japanese rugby can in part be attributed to the success of Kemari in Japan since the seventh century. Kemari was introduced into Japan during the Asuka period by Chinese officials. The basic premise of the game consists of keeping a ball in the air for as long as possible. The game is composed of elements that are relatively similar to soccer, a sport which was pivotal to the invention of rugby.

Furthermore, many Japanese took quickly to the chivalric values promoted by rugby. These gentlemanly values are heavily emphasized in rugby and mirror those core to Japanese society.

Despite the early success of rugby in Japan, the lack of a professional league meant that Japan never truly developed into the rugby powerhouse it should have been, and as a consequence, they did not look like they stood a chance against South Africa, for whom rugby ran through their veins.

This set the stage for perhaps one of the greatest upsets in modern rugby, and arguably, in all of sporting, history. In a tense back-and-forth game where Japan demonstrated their high levels of fitness, the two teams went hard at each other.

The game started the way it ended: with 15 Japanese players sprinting full-tilt at the South African line. Only, at the time, the South Africans weren’t quaking in their boots yet. The Japanese, a sea of soul-patched 5 foot 5 inch tanks, didn’t look like they would be going anywhere for the next 80 minutes.

For the first five minutes, it looked like the South Africans were intent on finishing the game quickly, but they had no idea what they were about to face. First, South Africa attacked fast, but Japan kept them at bay with ease. Every which way the ‘Springboks’ tried to find a way through, they came up against a barrier of raw muscle. The way the Japanese defended, it felt like lions taking down a buffalo, at one point, there were three Japanese players essentially hanging off of one of the larger South African players, hanging on with the sort of grim determination that would make Mufasa quake. Then, in a flash of red and white, Japan broke, and they broke hard. It was like watching the first tendrils of an oncoming tsunami creep its way up a beach. Through sheer brute force, the Japanese had worked themselves into an excellent position and a penalty that Ayumu Goromaru, one of the aforementioned soul-patched tanks, converted with ease. The Japanese were ahead. That in itself was a shock and as one elderly Japanese fan — decked out in his red and white — would later come to realize, it was just the beginning of an awesome hurricane.

And the hurricane did not abate either. The Japanese gale-force winds whipped and lashed at the South African defence, brushing them aside as one might a leaf. Within a minute, the Japanese had another penalty, only this time, Goromaru fluffed his lines and hooked his kick just wide. Nonetheless, the South Africans had been jolted awake. They tried to raise their pace, they tried to increase the intensity of their game, but every time they did, it felt as if the Japanese did too. There were points where it felt like the Japanese were toying with the South Africans like 15 Poseidons playing ping-pong with a fishing skiff. At times, it seemed the only way the South Africans could keep the Japanese from scoring was by aimlessly hoofing the ball upfield in the hope that, in a fit of mercy, the Japanese might take pity on the South Africans. Unfortunately for the South Africans, the Japanese only knew one kind of mercy: ruthless mercy. They seemed more intent on ending the game in the first 10 minutes than actually playing a proper game of rugby, and they were not doing a bang-up job of it either.

However, the South Africans finally recovered their composure, and from there, it was gruelling. The only way they could move forward against the Japanese was by working inch by inch until, by virtue of their largesse, they eked the ball across the try line to take the lead.

Suddenly, it was as if the Japanese had been reminded of their status. They should be losing and they had no business upsetting the natural order of things. At the same time, South Africa began to grow in confidence, they started to attack the Japanese back line with a verve that had been absent in the first 10 minutes. Soon after, they almost scored a second try, only for the ball to go out of play at the last moment.

All it took was a failed attempt for Japan to be jolted back awake, they swept forward once again. This time, they were blocked off at the one-yard line by a determined South African phalanx. The South Africans waited there, Romans awaiting the crazed Visigoths streaming forward, and they stood their ground. Or at least as long as anyone could hold their ground against a horde of Visigoths before they gave away to the blind insanity. Through sheer force of will, the Japanese inched their way over the try line. This time, Goromaru made no mistake, and the Japanese were back in front.

It was after this that the fans watching finally grasped exactly how even the matchup they were watching was. Within minutes, the South Africans had worked their way back up the field to retake the lead, but this time, no one was about to declare a victor. These were two teams that were going to match each other stride for stride, hit for hit.  Not only this, but it felt like a never ending one-upping contest, where every time the South Africans raised the intensity, the Japanese returned the favor with interest. The trend continued throughout the second half as both teams went bar for bar, try for try, inch for inch. As the pace increased, so did the excitement as murmurs of anxiety surfed across the tense crowd.

And so the game progressed, the South Africans took the lead again, only for the Japanese to peg them back. Once again, South Africa took the lead, only this time, Japan did not catch up as South Africa scored another three points. They were too far ahead. It was over. The natural balance of world rugby had been restored…

Only it had not. With 11 minutes left, Japan scored a try. They were now just three points behind. Then, with little more than a minute left, they won a penalty.

In this situation, a penalty means the opportunity to kick the ball between the posts and thus score another three points. In the Rugby World Cup, ties are allowed. If Japan took the tie, it would already be an excellent result. For the pundits watching, it was an opportunity they should have taken… should have. It was in this moment that the sheer audacity of Japan’s rugby team was made evident by their choice to reject the penalty in favor of a scrum, or possession of the ball. Now, more than ever before, Japan’s intent was clear as day: they were going for the win.

At first, it almost felt like South Africa was taken aback, offended, by the utter impertinence of such an action. Then it became fear. Japan’s nickname is the ‘Brave Blossoms,’ and here, they were living up to that moniker. There are times, when the intensity is racked up to its highest, that you can look into another person’s eyes and see that they will stop at nothing to accomplish their ultimate purpose. When the South African players looked into those of their Japanese counterparts, that was all they could see.

So the Japanese team spilled forward in what seemed like never-ending droves. First, they tried their luck one way, then the other. And then, in the final minute of the game, Japan found space out wide on the left. While most momentous events seem to go in slow motion, this one played out at break-neck speed. The ball was passed over to wing Karne Hesketh (originally a New Zealander, who switched to the Japanese national team in 2014), who lowered his body and, at full tilt, rammed past the last South African wing and over the try line.

There was no silence when the ball crossed the try line. There was no moment of shock. Every non-South African fan in the stadium had been waiting for this moment for the last 10 minutes. No. They may not have known it, but they had been waiting for this moment for the last century. It felt as if rugby had been invented with the sole purpose of providing these last 10 minutes of wholesome, vicious rugby. And so they waited in silence, some with bated breath, some less so. But once that ball crossed the line, the stadium heaved with the chaotic screams of 29,290 fans, some in anguish, some in joyous delirium, all in shock.

The victory could best be described as a “Mighty Ducks” story, if “The Mighty Ducks” ended with thousands of Japanese rugby fans in tears of joy. It was the perfect example of a team’s dedication and raw work ethic allowing them to punch far above their weight,  nay, their stratosphere,, and boy, did they do just that.

Additional information provided by Ren Makino