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The painful journey Japan endured to achieve World Cup glory

Kenki Fukuoka celebrates with teammates after scoring against Scotland last week. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Rather than focus on Japan’s 26-3 loss to South Africa in Sunday’s World Cup quarter-final, it’s better to remember how far the nation has come since playing in the first World Cup in 1987.

It’s been often painful, frequently humiliating, and a road’s that’s now taken Japan to No.6 in the world rankings – ahead of two-time champions Australia.


Japan lost to New Zealand 145-17 in 1995, and in 2007 there were two humbling losses – 91-3 against Australia and 72-18 v Wales. New Zealand battered the Brave Blossoms 83-7 in 2011.

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A succession of top foreign coaches, starting in 2007 with New Zealander John Kirwan, began to change things. Japan drew with Canada 12-12 that year, ending a 13-match losing streak in the World Cup.

Australian Eddie Jones built on the success, leading Japan to the most shocking upset of the 2015 World Cup, a 34-32 victory over the same South Africa that defeated Japan on Sunday under Jamie Joseph.

In addition to foreign coaching, Japan also has a mix of players with various ties to Japan. About half the 23-man team on Sunday were born to two Japanese parents. They include stars like fly-half Yu Tamura along with speedy winger Kenki Fukuoka.

Several players are eligible for Japan because of rugby’s liberal three-year residency rule, including South Korean-born Jiwon Koo, New Zealand-born Luke Thompson, and Australia-born James Moore.

Captain Michael Leitch was born in New Zealand with Fijian heritage, but came to Japan to study when he was 15 and speaks Japanese better than English. He’s the face of Japanese rugby, and his sponsors have placed him in media everywhere.

“We’re really proud of what we’ve achieved at this World Cup,” said Japan coach Jamie Joseph, a former New Zealand player who also played for Japan, after Sunday’s exit.

“This is for the players. They’ve given to the group and they’ve given so much to the country in this World Cup.”


Joseph was also asked about his future but dodged the question.

“I can’t tell you anything about what’s next,” he said.

“I know that Japanese rugby is in a good place now. For me right now, I’m just going to celebrate the effort and achievements of this team.”


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