How Japan has fast become the land of rising belief in rugby Test arena

Will Mapcherson
Eastern promise: legendary former All Black Dan Carter in action for Kobelco Steelers against Suntory Sungoliath in a fast-improving Top League match in Tokyo: Getty Images

Rugby has been played in Japan since the 19th century, but it was not until a balmy, barmy afternoon in Brighton three years ago that it announced itself to the world with victory over South Africa in the World Cup’s greatest-ever upset.

Next year, the eyes of the world will hover a little longer when Japan hosts the first World Cup outside the game’s traditional strongholds. A landmark moment beckons for the sport.

That win on the south coast showed the appetite for rugby in Japan waiting to be tapped. There are around 125,000 registered players in the country but, back home on television, 25million people — around 20 per cent of the nation’s population — watched them beat Samoa later in the tournament.

The South Africa win was front-page news and a film is being made about it. Rightly so: the win came 20 years after they lost 145-17 (conceding 21 tries) to New Zealand at a previous World Cup.

Next year, they have the responsibility of opening the tournament — against Russia — and hosting 400,000 travelling fans. They went out by a whisker in 2015, but Pool A, where they will be targeting victory over Scotland in their final group game, looks possible to escape from.

Japanese rugby has hovered on the edge of the mainstream for some time, with stories ten-a-penny for a decade about players heading to the Top League, the country’s 15-year-old, 16-team league both for the pre-retirement cash-in and the mid-career sabbatical for Southern Hemisphere players.

Dan Carter is there now, while Jerome Kaino, James Haskell, David Pocock and Israel Folau have been. Reports earlier this year suggested that Danny Cipriani was offered £50,000 per game to head east. He declined, instead opting to battle for his England place at Gloucester. South Africa’s Jacques Fourie was said to earn £700,000 per year to play for Kobelco Steelers in 2012.

Such salaries particularly jarred when it was revealed earlier this week that the players on tour were earning just 2,000 yen (£13.64) per day. They are not nearly as well-remunerated as foreign players back home, either. The Top League’s clubs are offshoots — essentially works teams — of big Japanese businesses: Panasonic, Yamaha, Ricoh and Toshiba all have teams. Many players have day jobs with those companies.

Since 2016, Japan have had representation in the expanded Super Rugby competition. The Sunwolves have just six wins from 45 games across three tough seasons, but Japan’s best are being exposed to the Southern Hemisphere’s best. Japan have beaten Italy, Georgia and Tonga in recent times. Wales needed a late drop-goal to beat them 33-30 in 2016 and, a year ago, they drew with France in Paris.

They hosted New Zealand recently and now face England for the first time since the inaugural World Cup in 1987. Then, England won 60-7, with wings Mike Harrison and Rory Underwood sharing five tries.

For all the talk of wanting to smash Japan, you sense England will have felt the need to take their preparation more seriously this time. More than 81,000 tickets have gone for a game on track to sell out.

“They are a better team than they were in the World Cup in 2015,” said England defence coach John Mitchell yesterday, while Jones pointed out earlier in the week the preparation that has gone into readying themselves for this fixture. Kyle Sinckler spoke in detail about the dangerous blend of local and imported talent England will face — Japan are no longer slight, or shy of a tackle.

Jones, Japan’s coach from 2012-15, gets plenty of credit for the advances in the game there. He believes rugby has come on leaps and bounds since he first arrived and knows England must be wary.

“When I went there, they had a completely losing mindset,” he said. “They would have been happy to play England and get beaten 70-20 because, as long as they tried hard, everyone was happy. They still had the name Brave Blossoms.

“Now those young guys think they can win. They play Super Rugby, so are playing against the best in the world on a weekly basis and think they can win. That makes them more dangerous.”

Japan arrive at Twickenham a coming force. It is an opportunity for another big scalp, but no opportunity is quite like next year: to tap into a huge potential playing base in a sport-mad country.