English merchants and soldiers had brought rugby to Japan even before it had arrived in New Zealand. Yokohama Football Club, founded in 1866, is the oldest known rugby club in Asia. But it wasn’t until 1899 when Ginosuke Tanaka returned from Cambridge University that the game began to take root with Japanese people, primarily at Keio University in Tokyo.
Japanese rugby then evolved in isolation until a fast, technically accurate game frightened the life out of the baby All Blacks in 1968. For a while Japanese rugby became a thing of curious wonder in the west and a touring side did manage to defeat a strong Scotland side in 1989.
Then, perhaps chastened by the powerful scrummaging they encountered overseas, Japan partially abandoned its roots and sought, unsuccessfully, to emulate the more established rugby playing nations.
That all changed in 2012 when Australian Eddie Jones became coach and instructed the Brave Blossoms to return to the type of rugby with which they were most comfortable. A win against a depleted Welsh side was secured in 2013 but few took Jones seriously when he stated his intention to qualify for the quarter-finals at the outset of the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
In seven previous appearances at World Cup finals Japan had won once in twenty-four attempts. This time they were drawn in a group with South Africa, Scotland, Samoa and USA and their campaign would begin against two time World Champions the Springboks.
Featuring World Cup winners such as Shalk Burger, Victor Matfield and Bryan Habana the ‘Boks were expected to mount a credible challenge for honours coming into the tournament. Although they had never faced Japan before pundits agreed that the contest should be little more than a routine victory for South Africa.
With thirty minutes played Japan had already caused an upset and despite conceding the first try, led 10-7. Without panic the Springboks upped their game and scored three additional tries but every time they established a lead the Cherry Blossoms reeled them back in.
With ten minutes to go the scores were tied at 29-29. Again South Africa came forward and a penalty gave them a 32-29 lead. But with minutes left if was Japan who looked the fresher. Precise tackling, quickly recycling the ball and accurate passing had the ‘Boks on the rack. In the final minute in a sign of great confidence Japan passed up the chance to kick a penalty for a draw. Moments later they had crossed the South African try-line to win.
Wins against Samoa and the USA followed and although the Brave Blossoms ultimately fell short of Jones’ ambition a marker was set down. England 2015 had its first, but not its last, iconic moment.