OITA, Japan (Reuters) - Japan were beaten up and bundled out of the World Cup on Sunday but whatever happens over the next two weeks will have to be pretty special for the Brave Blossoms to be displaced as the symbol of the ninth edition of rugby’s showpiece tournament.
Their run to the quarter-finals of the first World Cup to be held outside the heartlands of the game has led to an explosion of interest in the game beyond the realms of the imagination of even the most optimistic World Rugby executive.
From the thousands of red-and-white clad fans in Tokyo Stadium for Sunday’s match against the Springboks to the tens of millions more watching on TV up and down the country, the Brave Blossoms have captivated a nation.
Chants of “Nippon! Nippon! Nippon!” echoed around the streets of the southern city of Oita on Sunday night as locals joined the Wales, England, France and Australia supporters - in town for two other quarter-finals - to watch the match.
With the city’s fan zone packed beyond capacity long before the final last-eight clash started, multinational groups of fans huddled in groups around TVs wherever they could find them in bars, restaurants and street food stands.
There were tears from local fans to echo those of the Japan players after the 26-3 loss to the twice world champions but that disappointment was replaced quickly by pride at a remarkable achievement.
“Dear Japan World Cup rugby squad, thank you so, so much for giving us much enthusiasm,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Twitter.
“The whole month was like a dream. Proud to be in the last eight. I am very proud of your showing real strength against the world’s best teams at Asia’s first Rugby World Cup.”
The Japanese national team could arguably do with a new nickname because, although there was no shortage of courage on display as they took on the hulking Springboks on Sunday, it was outstanding rugby that got them to their first quarter-final.
That a nation humiliated 145-17 by New Zealand at the 1995 World Cup could better teams with long and proud rugby traditions such as Ireland, Scotland and Samoa was testament to a huge amount of hard work over the past five years.
These were not fluke wins, moreover, but deserved victories earned by a team playing an irresistible game at a blistering pace with fierce commitment and no little skill.
“Undoubtedly the strongest and best, wonderful team, and the 31 here are the most wonderful players in the history (of Japanese rugby),” flyhalf Yu Tamura said on Sunday.
Coach Jamie Joseph’s future is uncertain but, whether he decides to stay on or not, he is convinced that his team have left a legacy that will endure.
“The rugby hasn’t changed, but now there’s been an audience,” the New Zealander said. “It’s created a voice for the team in that respect and hopefully that will give momentum for Japanese kids, and that’s ideal.”
How Japan go about building on that legacy is the big question, with a spot in the Six Nations or Rugby Championship looking unlikely and World Rugby’s Nations Cup proposal having been scuppered.
The Tokyo-based Sunwolves team will play one last season of Super Rugby next year and although there have been other international competitions tabled that might include Japanese teams, all are still at the planning stage.
The legacy discussion will continue long after the tournament ends on Nov. 2 but Japan captain Michael Leitch had no doubt about the trajectory of the game in the nation of 127 million people.
“Japan’s only going to get stronger,” the 31-year-old loose forward said succinctly at his post-match news conference.
“All the best with the rest of the World Cup.”
Additional reporting by Yoko Kono; Editing by Paul Tait