Japan rugby may soon be the main rugby team fans will be talking about; aside from the Kiwis from New Zealand. Hugely popular, as well as being successful in their home-World Cup tournament. This boost in popularity came about after their victory over Samoa which recorded the biggest ever broadcast audience in Japan.
World Rugby Chairman Sir Bill Beaumont said, “This remarkable Rugby World Cup continues to gather momentum and it is exciting to see that it is attracting new fans here in Japan, as reflected by the record free-to-air audience share for Japan Brave Blossoms versus Manu Samoa, and the huge Fanzone attendances.”
A record peak audience share of 46.1% was recorded during the Japan Brave blossoms victory, which put the hosts within touching distances of the first-ever quarter-final. It is believed that it was the largest television viewing audience of the year in Japan.
Local media said it was the most-watched sporting event of the year in Japan, surpassing Naomi Osaka’s win over Petra Kvitova in the Australian Open final.
Popular at home and gaining International Fans
But it was not just in-home viewing that set new records. 150,000 people attended fan zones to enjoy the game on Saturday, surpassing the 130,000 fans for the Japan v Ireland game.
In International views, 2 million people tuned to ITV in Europe to watch Japan play Samoa. But it wasn’t enough to beat the 3.2 million viewers who were glued to the tv enjoying England play Argentina.
Whilst in previous tournaments, the Japanese may have won hearts, in 2019 they are quite literally, the ‘hottest ticket in town’. Expect their last pool match – the final game before the knockout stages – to possibly have a bigger International audience; considering the importance of the game and, their popularity.
First Tier 2 team to host Rugby World Cup
Since Rugby World Cup was first hosted by one country (1995), hosts have won their first match five of the six times. France is the exception, losing 17-12 to Argentina in 2007.
Japan will appear in the Rugby World Cup for the ninth time. Canada and Japan are the only Tier, 2 teams, to have appeared in all Rugby World Cups.
Already having a proud record, four years ago, the Brave Blossoms caused one of the biggest upsets in RWC history by defeating South Africa 34-32. That year, they equaled their best performance in the tournament (from 1991) by finishing third in their group.
Only one downside from their 2015 campaign was, they are the only team in tournament history where a team failed to progress to the knockout stage despite at least three pool phase victories.
Yet they left England, a better team. A stronger rugby nation.
Having played 28 matches at Rugby World Cups, with a record of four wins, two draws, and have lost 22, at one time they did share the number of games lost (along with the USA and Romania). That is until 2019. Now, they are still undefeated and potentially in the nation’s first-ever quarterfinal. One reason Japan is now in fact, real RWC favourites.
Players now creating new Blossoms RWC records
While it is true that of the players in the squad, many were born outside the country. 16 foreign-born and 15 born in Japan. That does not account for how many years players have been ensconced in the Japan rugby-system, yet Japan Brave Blossoms are not the only country with a number of imports.
Tonga and Samoa hold the record for most foreign players; 18 and 19 respectively.
Luke Thompson joins the center Yukio Motoki as the only players to have been named in Japan squads at four separate RWC tournaments [although Motoki played in only three, as he was an unused replacement in 1991]. Thompson could become the oldest player to represent Japan in competition with 38 years.
Skipper Micheal Leitch became the second player to captain Japan at two World Cups (following Takuro Miuchi). His role in helping to develop a winning nature is significant. It will mean he is seen more as actively helping to change the team, but also the wider-support now enjoyed by the team.
Japan Brave Blossoms players score tries too – Kotaro Matsushima has recorded at least one try in five of his last six test appearances. Jiwon Koo comes off the bench to become the second Republic of Korea-born player to feature at Rugby World Cup, following Kim Chul-Won who featured in two World Cup matches in 2007.
Coach Jamie Joseph – breaking new ground in Japan
For Japan rugby coach Jamie Joseph, recognition and expectation arrived at about the same time and in equal measure. His side has grown in strength, after the momentous 2015 season.
Inheriting a group that knew it had potential, the humble Joseph settled into his work. He went about gauging the talent pool and utilizing his past experiences. Joseph has an impressive rugby resume from his native New Zealand but, for much of his coaching career, he operated beneath the radar.
As a player, he was an All Black — a member of New Zealand’s 1995 World Cup squad — and a New Zealand Maori representative. Later he played 10 tests for Japan, appearing at the 1999 Rugby World Cup. He made 86 appearances for Otago province, winning a National Provincial Championship title in 1991.
His crowning glory as a coach was the 2015 Super Rugby championship.
It wasn’t until Japan beat Ireland; in one of the biggest upsets in Rugby World Cup history, that the wider rugby world sat up and took notice. The Irish were ranked No. 1 heading into the Rugby World Cup in Japan. How was this team able to dethrone a 2018 Grand Slam-winning team?
It was a fine effort, followed up by a tenacious come-from-behind win over Samoa that had the nation’s blood pressure skyrocketing. Joseph and assistant Tony Brown are now almost household names in Japan. The exposure of coaches, players, and a general interest in rugby will be the catalyst for a huge growth burst. One that will see the side be the new faces of rugby in Asia.
The Japan Brave Blossoms is a wonderful story but, one that is not yet over. There are many reasons why Japan are RWC favorites. Planning, and executing a game plan to challenge any team. Their boundless energy and enthusiasm, are only some of the factors that may earn the host nation a unique place in rugby folklore.
Mcee Azutopshutter is in Japan as an accredited journalist and photographer for Nakuru Rugby, and for Last Word on Rugby.
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