Japan have already made history by becoming the first Asian team to reach the Quarter-finals of a Rugby World Cup but can they keep the momentum going and actually win the tournament outright?
That might seem, on the surface, as the unlikeliest of scenarios but the Cherry Blossoms are a force to be reckoned with and right now they look unstoppable as the race to the final approaches. And there is plenty of precedent for the host nation to defy the odds and win the Rugby World Cup.
To date there have been eight Rugby World Cups starting in 1987. Participation has grown from the original 16 teams to the 20 that we see taking part this year in Japan. Of those eight tournaments, the host team has won three: New Zealand in the inaugural event in 1987, South Africa in 1995 and New Zealand again in 2011. So can Japan add their name to that coveted list?
It’s looking good so far. Japan won all four of their groups games, and in doing so caused one of the biggest upsets by beating Ireland in the Shizuoka Stadium. Bare in mind that Ireland had won all seven of their previous encounters, the last six by a margin of at least 20 points. So when a renewed and invigorated Japan took to the field, their epic win stunned not only Irish fans but gave home fans the taste of success that they had been dreaming of.
Their next big test came against Scotland who were fighting for their rugby lives to stay in the competition. Surely, if the win over Ireland was a fluke, as claimed by some, Scotland would be able to counter the plays and go toe-to-toe with Japan. Not so. Setting a frenetic pace from the off, the Japanese out ran, out passed and out played their opposition to not only win, but to take the bonus point with it. With four wins from four the Japanese had done the unthinkable. They had topped their group and progressed to the Quarterfinals.
So now we are down to eight teams who are left to battle it out for four places in the semi-finals. Nothing is guaranteed and within reason almost any outcome is possible. Japan avoided a clash with the All Blacks who will now play Ireland, and instead will meet South Africa. Their only test so far has been against New Zealand, a match they lost 23-13 in the opening weekend. Since then they have played Italy, Namibia and Canada – none of whom could be considered powerhouses of the sport. So in terms of difficulty, Japan has had the tougher road.
And that is a good thing. Japan have had to raise their game and be more strategic which will stand them in good stead against SA on Sunday. Plus they have already beaten them, in the 2015 Rugby World Cup, so they will know that the win is not impossible. With 50,000 fans packing out Tokyo Stadium, support will definitely be on their side and it may just be enough to get the Japanese over the line and into the semi-final – especially if the likes of Kenki Fukuoka, Yu Tamura and Kotaro Matsushima are on form.
From there they would play the winner of the Wales V France Quarterfinal which, given how the other side of the board looks, is a far more appealing prospect than potentially come up against New Zealand, Australia, England or an Irish team out for revenge!
So can Japan win the Rugby World Cup in 2019? Well, that is up to the rugby Gods. But one thing is for sure, Japan have earned the respect of the entire Rugby World. And this rugby fan, who actually went out to Japan for the tournament, is hoping against all hope that they can rock the sport and go home with the Webb Ellis Cup on November 2nd 2019. Go Cherry Blossoms!