TOKYO (AP) — Before each match, Michael Leitch and his Japan squad have left the field in a battle-like formation after their warmup, each man in widening ranks behind the captain and with his right hand gripping the shoulder of the teammate in front.
After each match, the entire squad has lined up to take a ceremonial bow, in the respectful, traditional way, to thank their supporters — a group that has been swelling exponentially with every win in the group stage of the Rugby World Cup.
Japan will experience another first in the tournament — the first Rugby World Cup in Asia — when the so-called Brave Blossoms take on South Africa in the quarterfinals on Sunday.
Japan won all four of its group games to top Pool A, including an upset win over an Ireland team that was ranked No. 1 before the tournament. That’s the pre-tournament objective seized. Yet Leitch is far from satisfied.
The Japanese may not ever have played a knockout game, but they hadn’t won a group game for 20 years at the Rugby World Cup before winning three in 2015 — including the shocking 34-32 win over South Africa that was dubbed the Miracle of Brighton.
Neither Japan nor South Africa has really focused on that result this week. The Japanese because head coach Jamie Joseph doesn’t think this team will be defined by that tournament. And the Springboks because … well, it’s better forgotten by the two-time World Cup champions.
South Africa beat Japan 41-7 in a warmup game here last month, but neither squad is putting too much emphasis on that, either.
“Both teams had different things in mind. We definitely played a style of game that wasn’t around playing for South Africa, it was around playing for the World Cup,” Japan’s attack coach Tony Brown said Saturday. “Tomorrow is a completely different game, a one-off quarterfinal, winner goes on and loser bows out so it’s exciting.”
Joseph and Brown have played for New Zealand. Joseph played against Japan in 1995 and for Japan at the ’99 World Cup. Their collection of home-grown talent and naturalized players from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa have really embraced the Japanese culture and, with that, have become the nation’s team.
“It’s amazing the amount of people that have got on the Japan bandwagon,” Brown said. “The amount of people watching every game and supporting us in Japan has been amazing.
“It’s the same in New Zealand. Japan is New Zealand’s second (favorite) team now, so we’re proud we can represent them playing good footy.”
Entertaining rugby has been Japan’s signature in this tournament, with the ball regularly spread wide to the speedy wings. That could change on Sunday, when South Africa aims to outmuscle them and slow them down. That strategy was obvious when Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus announced a squad — 24 hours before deadline — featuring six forwards on the eight-man reserves bench.
“I don’t think it’s a double bluff. I think there’s only one thing they’re going to do and that’s come and physically intimidate us,” Brown said. “A messy game is what they’re good at. Our challenge is to play our game and try to entice them into playing some Japanese rugby.”
As well as Leitch, the Japan squad for Sunday contains seven other players involved in that massive upset four years ago. Winger Kotaro Matsushima is the joint-leading try-scorer this tournament so far, and hooker Shota Horie and lock Luke Thompson both also started the game in ’15. Prop Keita Inagaki and flyhalf Yu Tamura were on the bench four years ago, but are in the starting XV this time.
Tamura was the leading scorer with 48 points in the group stage, and his combination with scrumhalf Yutaka Nagare has been instrumental in providing the connection between Japan’s high-energy forwards and speedy backs.
Nagare, a crafty scrumhalf on the smaller side, knows he can expect a lot of attention from the big Boks.
“They’ll come at us head-on — make it a forward battle,” he said. “We need to fight properly there of course, but it’s important to play the ball smartly and make it a quick battle.
“It will be real hand-to-hand combat and tough, but I’ll keep giving energy to the team.”
The Japanese will have almost unanimous crowd support. As well as the almost 50,000 at Tokyo Stadium, the domestic broadcast audience is expected to exceed 50 million again and bars and official fan zones around the country will be packed with supporters wearing red-and-white hooped jerseys and headscarves with hissho, or must win, printed on the front.
“We really feel the attention and at the ground the fans push us on, too,” Nagare said. “I think we have made a good impact, not just in the rugby world, but in the entire sporting world.
“We’ll carry the emotions of our fans but it’s something we should feel after executing our game.”
Flanker Pieter Labuschagne has experience of both sides in this contest, having played in South Africa before moving to Japan seeking opportunities. He stood in as Japan captain for a couple of games during the group stage, and has been an important addition to the hard-working backrow.
“We come from a lot of different backgrounds, but we have all come together as one team, all working toward the same goal,” Labuschagne said of the Japan team. “I really love South Africa but I also love Japan and everyone here. This is our team. This has become our new home. We want to make everyone in Japan proud, everyone in this camp, this group.
“We’re not planning to stop here, so it’s about doing what we did in the pool, keep on playing for each other and being one team.”
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