The Japanese national rugby team is not one that contains any of the premier players in the sport. Those players come from traditional rugby playing nations – like Beauden Barrett of New Zealand and Owen Farrell of England – and not an Asian country with an international rugby footprint that was barely a blip on the radar until they beat the mighty South Africa in a match since dubbed ‘The Brighton Miracle’ at the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
This fall, however, the Japanese got to host the 2019 Rugby World Cup, their first time holding the event. There, a country with a rugby playing history similar to the USA, shocked the world. Not only did their Tier 2 team beat Tier 1 powers Scotland and Ireland, but the country also embraced the competition in a way that few could have expected when the decision to award the tournament to a “non-rugby playing nation” was initially made.
Japan, or the Brave Blossoms as they are known, may never reach these heights again depending on how their investment and pushing of the game goes after 2019. What Japan has managed to do, however, is remind even the most cynical and snarky of sports columnists that sport can be a beautiful and uniting thing.
Set against the background of Typhoon Hagibis, a late season storm that was the most devastating to hit the Kanto region of Japan since 1958, the country rallied around their premier players.
Players such as Michael Leitch, a New Zealand born forward who has been in Japan since moving there as a 15-year-old high schooler and has proven – as captain – to be the perfect link between the Japanese players and the West. Players like Kenki Fukuoka, a livewire of a winger who at 5-foot-9 and 183-pounds has the electric skill set of a top tier slot receiver in the NFL, but who is now retiring at 27-years-old to follow his passion to become a doctor. Players like Shota Horie, a dreadlocked hooker who is a powerhouse at 5-foot-11 and 230 pounds and who was putting his hand up to take every run and make every tackle even as the giant South Africans were slamming him into the ground.
They are just some of the many premier players on the Japanese 31-man roster who are now heroes in their own country. Players who will be well taken care of even by fans because of the fight and determination they showed in pulling this country up into a rugby playing nation for at least one month.
The USA wants the 2029 World Cup (2023 will be held in the traditional country of France). Rugby is a growing sport here and the country obviously has all the infrastructure needed to host such an event. Japan has shown that a minor nation – albeit in a heavy developed country – can put on a show that was better than any expected.
Can the USA do the same if given the chance?
Article by Premier Players