When you think of Japanese rugby, your mind automatically takes you to that bright sunny afternoon in Brighton where Japan took on South Africa at the Rugby World Cup in 2015.
Karne Hesketh’s late, late try against the Springboks sealed a sensational and historical 34-32 victory for the Brave Blossoms.
But just how far has Japanese rugby come?
The injection of financial backing has drawn a number of high profile names to Japan’s highest level league – the Top League – with Liam Messam, Cory Jane, George Smith and Tim Nanai-Williams to name but a few. It’s interesting that the Top League teams are owned by major companies, with employees from those companies being players too. The League was, set up in 2003, was a pre-cursor in driving up standards as well as popularity to improve the national side. In the last six years or so, salaries in the Top League have risen to become some of the highest in the world.
But the Japanese RFU have recently announced the introduction of a second tier with eight competing teams due to begin at the start of the 2017/18 season. It’s a move that will surely discover and nurture new Japanese talent, as they look to establish themselves in the rugby world.
The addition of the Sunwolves into the Super Rugby competition is another giant step in the right direction for rugby in Japan. Competing with the top players in the southern hemisphere will continue to strengthen the national side. The inaugural season in 2016 was always going to be a test, but as the competition progresses over the coming seasons, they’ll certainly be up there competing with the best.
Japan have been blessed with some of the best coaches in World Rugby. Kiwi John Kirwan and then Australian Eddie Jones, now with England, the mastermind behind the victory against South Africa as well as having a Rugby World Cup Final to his name. Now at the helm is the Highlanders head coach Jamie Joseph who’s CV boasts of a Super Rugby title in 2015. The level of coaching has undoubtedly contributed to their ascendancy in recent years and Joseph will be looking to continue that.
Despite being a dominant force in the Asian Rugby Championship, successes at the Rugby World Cup have been few and far between. Prior to going into the tournament in 2015, the sole win for Japan had been back in the Pool Stage in 1991. However, three wins from four in 2015 was essentially their best ever tournament – falling just short of Scotland for the second quarter-final place.
With Japan hosting the Rugby World Cup in 2019, it gives the emerging rugby nation a chance to showcase itself on the greatest stage of all. Between now and then, however, the Brave Blossoms will only be going one way – and that is up.