Rugby World Cup
Farewell Japan - and thanks for the memories!
Robert Bartlett
October 12, 2015
The World Cup will miss Japan

KINGSHOLM, Gloucester -- The hosts of the 2019 World Cup will leave England as heroes. Japan have been every bit as exciting, thrilling and heart-warming as departing head coach Eddie Jones promised they would be. It is hard to believe that, prior to their arrival here, they had not won a single World Cup match since 1991.

On Sunday evening, in front of a booming Kingsholm Stadium, the Brave Blossoms earned their first-ever World Cup win over the USA in the final pool match of 2015. It also marked the first time in tournament history that a nation had won three pool matches yet failed to advance to the knockout stages.

Only defeat to Scotland, which came just four days after their unbelievable efforts in victory against South Africa, meant the quarterfinal place that Jones had so ambitiously set as a pre-World Cup target cruelly avoided them. The last eight will be a dull place without them.

"Let's be honest, before this tournament Japan were one of the joke teams," Jones said in his post-match press conference. "Teams would put out their B-team against them and win by 80-90 points. To come here and win three out of four games is a super effort from the team. It shows how hard they have worked to achieve this."

It also shows the influence that Jones, who leaves his role to take over Super Rugby outfit Stormers amid speculation linking him to the England job, has had on his players. They're not the most imposing of sides -- alongside Uruguay, Japan were the joint smallest team at the 2015 World Cup - but by God did they make up for it in vigour, explosiveness and awesome skill.

Fumiaki Tanaka and Kosei Ono formed one of the most impressive halfback partnerships of the entire tournament. Captain Michael Leitch put his name alongside inspirational leaders like Mamuka Gorgodze, Jacques Burger and even Richie McCaw. But Ayumu Goromaru, who aptly kicked the tournament's 2000th point against the USA, stole the show. Japan's talismanic fullback cried twice after the win against the US: once in his on-pitch interview and then again while speaking to reporters in the tunnel. That is what creating a legacy to be proud of means to this group of players.

© Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

"We've been the hardest working team in world rugby," Lock Luke Thompson said in the post-match mixed zone. "Nobody has trained harder. The work ethic has been magnificent. We've not got the huge stars, but we've out-worked other teams and that's something to be proud of.

Argentina 64- 19 Namibia/ Japan 28-18 USA (Australia only)

"If lots of kids start playing rugby because of this, then that would be great. It's one of our goals. We want rugby to be a popular sport in Japan and hopefully we've taken a step in that direction."

It is surely a certainty. From their last-gasp warm-up victory against Georgia in August to their final triumph over Mike Tolkin's Eagles, Japan brought colour, passion and hope to this World Cup. And that is without mentioning their shock opening victory against the Springboks, which will be forever remembered as one of the greatest moments in both rugby and sporting history.

It was a victory inspired and encapsulated a nation. Official World Cup stores had to close because they could not cope with the high demand for Japan shirts. Rugby was the headline in Japan -- not baseball or sumo. And, despite the defeat to Vern Cotter's Scotland, a record 25 million people tuned in back home to watch Japan bounce back against Samoa. Jones predicted even more had watched them play the USA.

Karne Hesketh scores the match-winning try for Japan against South Africa
Karne Hesketh scores the match-winning try for Japan against South Africa© Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images

"Maybe there was 30 million people in Japan watching this game," Jones said. "That's the whole of the Australian population plus the kangaroos, and New Zealand and all the sheep. Now that's not bad.

"Now out of that 30 million people there are kids that want to be the new Michael Leitch [the Japan captain]. It's a fantastic opportunity for Japan. These guys are heroes now. They've changed the whole image of Japanese rugby. When kids have heroes, they want to emulate them and that's the fantastic thing about it. That's what sport can do."

The next World Cup will be the first in Asia and, following Japan's fervent showing in England, you would back them to go one better in front of their own. Much like their heroes did on the pitch, the Japanese supporters turned a few heads in England.

Even in the knowledge that they could not make the quarterfinals, the crowds turned out in droves to welcome the team bus into Kingsholm. It was a sea of red and white -- Brave Blossoms mixed with the colours of Gloucester. If this was the scene in 2015, just imagine what the reception will be in four years' time.

"I think a lot of people have taken us to their hearts," forwards coach and former Bath star Steve Borthwick said. "When you hear about the shirts selling out and you see the number of supporters who were out there today, it's clear everyone has enjoyed supporting this Japan team.

"I've driven down that road on a matchday many times and many, many times I've seen a sea of red and white throwing gestures at the bus that I won't repeat here. But the support has really moved the players.

"One of our goals was to be the team of the tournament. We set out to create a team that Japan can really be proud of. They should be proud of this group of young men, who have worked so hard to achieve what they have done."

Roll on 2019.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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