Japan Rugby: Brave Blossoms, Not Wilting Wannabes

Jo-Ryan SalazarSenior Analyst IMay 20, 2010

TOKYO - MAY 15:  Ryan Nicholas of Japan runs the ball during the HSBC Asian 5 Nations match between Japan and Kazakhstan at Prince Chichibu Stadium on May 15, 2010 in Tokyo, Japan.  (Photo by Junko Kimura/Getty Images)
Junko Kimura/Getty Images

In the sport of rugby union, there are many teams I have respect for. I have respect for the Wallabies because of their consistency. The All Blacks' haka and fluid play have made their a favorite around the world.

England, Scotland, Ireland, Italy, Wales, and France form the super hexagon of European rugby while a secondary hex of impending dominance looms in the Ukraine, Spain, Portugal, Romania, Georgia, and Russia.

Here in the Americas, while Argentina has risen as top cat on the mountain (or mountains, if you will), my home side, the USA Eagles, are starting to qualify on a frequent basis (more on them in a bit). They will always be my favorite of all the favorites I have. And you can't forget those Tongans, Samoans, or Fijians either.

But in Asia—which has to go down as the weakest region in all of rugby—Japan is my national team of choice.

Korea Republic? Eternal second fiddle. Arabian Gulf, with their expatriates? Don't matter, especially since they will sink into the dustbins of history by the end of the year anyway.

Hong Kong? Well, they do have credibility with their Sevens Series but, nah. And Kazakhstan? Why the bloody heck do THEY even have a team?

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Please. People, people, people. The only nation that matters in Asian rugby is Japan. That's it. No one else. Japan is Asian rugby.

Who else has dominated the Asian Five Nations? Let's take a look. Hmm...in 2008 the Cherry Blossoms have racked up 310 points, while allowing 58. A plus-252 point difference and 48 tries. The other team s combined? 42 tries.

But wait, it only gets better. In the 2009 Asian Five Nations: Japan scored 271 points on 41 tries. All right, so the production went down a bit. And credit to the other competitors, combined they scored 38. But guess what? Hoho, they only gave up 40 points.

Kazakhstan, who finished second in that edition, gave up more than three times that many (139) points. How is rugby in Asia going to ever progress if you got that forest full of rugby-lovin' cherry blossoms standing in the way? Simple. You won't.

Have fun trying, you Nomads. You guys are so hopeless against Japan that the women are doing a quadruple times better than you. They are a perfect 4-0 against the Sakura Nadeshiko (they don't have an official nickname yet, this is my personal nick) as of today. Chew on that on your way back to Almaty.

Japan dominating Asia is like Australia being too big of a fish in the Oceania Football Confederation. That's why they are in a bigger ocean in the Asian Football Confederation. Or, if you want to put it in rugby terms, it's akin to South Africa dominating the continent Africa: they're the only team that matters.

I mean sure, you got countries like Namibia, Cote d'Ivoire, and Zimbabwe getting some experience competing in the IRB Rugby World Cup and Kenya (of all countries!) is, hands down, the sevens counterpart to South Africa's fifteen-a-side, but have THEY lifted the William Webb Ellis trophy?

The movie Invictus (starring Morgan Freeman as my man Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon as Mr. Francois Pienaar) gave you clear hint and the answer is NO .

The Springboks are the only team that most rugby pundits talk about when discussing the African national teams over coffee and rusks because they are so good, they even battle for a couple of trophies in the Tri-Nations Series with the Wallabies (Mandela Challenge Plate) and All Blacks (Freedom Cup), to go with the main trophy itself.

Of course, it will become a Four Nations once Los Pumas get the green light. That is, if the Argentine Rugby Union will get rid of their obsession with amateurism. Get with the times, hombres. It's 2010, and you still think it's 1994! ¡Venga! ¡Venga! ¡Venga ya!

Back to Los Sakuras. The issue here regarding Japan's national team isn't that it's doing well (as I mentioned, it is). The issue is that Japan is kicking serious rear in Asia, and getting their rears handed to them on a cold steel platter outside of it.

The Cherry Blossoms (now also named the Brave Blossoms) possess a 1-31 record against Tier One opponents (if the New Zealand Maori are added in). The sole win was against Argentina, a 44-29 stunner on September 15, 1998. When you take away their record against the Tier One opponents, you end up with a respectable 82-55-3 record against opponents outside of the top flight of international rugby union. That's not too dang shabby.

But it's not as futile as their record against a certain country from across the pond. The USA had accounted for a plurality of Japan's defeats, with 12. Credit to manager John Kirwan for giving the Sakuras a winning streak with a couple of test victories in November 2008, but the Eagles remain the biggest thorn in Japan's side.

I'm going to go on a tangent here again. When you compare Japan's rugby union team with their American football team in terms of success, you have to go with Toshiaki Abe's crew. They have won a couple of IFAF World Cups. However, just like their rugby counterparts, the USA has been the bogey country for Japan (refer to John Mackovic and his 2007 ragtag group of fresh college grads).

That's not to say the sport of rugby union hasn't made a huge impression on the sporting landscape in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Rugby union is nowhere in the level of sports like baseball and association football in terms of reaching out, and while it is getting close to reaching gridiron in terms of international success, it's not quite there yet.

But it does have its history, its key playmakers and aficionados. With over 125,000 registered players playing in 3,631 clubs all over the country, rugby's impression is an indelible mark.

Not too long after Commodore Matthew C. Perry and his brigade of ships opened Japan to the world, those bloody Brits brought the inflated bladder to places like Yokohama and Kobe to introduce the game.

The action displayed by the sailors were interpreted by subjects of the Emperor Meiji as an emulation of the seven virtues of Bushido: Rectitude, Courage, Benevolence, Respect, Honesty, Honor, and Loyalty.

Keio University, located in Tokyo's Minato City, is akin to the University of California at Berkeley in pioneering the game of rugby to their respective countries. Among the first teachers of the game of rugby to the Japanese were a couple of Keio University professors who also were graduates of the Academia Cantabrigiensis (that's the University of Cambridge, for those of you who didn't major in Latin). They were Edward Bramwell Clarke and Ginnosuke Tanaka.

A right leg injury didn't prevent Professor Clarke from noting in his anecdotes that "...[the students] seemed to have nothing to occupy them out of doors in the after-summer and after-winter days. Winter baseball had not yet come in, and the young fellows loitered around wasting the hours and the lovely outdoor weather."

The solution? Break out the bladder that the sailors were tossing around and scoring tries with and teach them a sport that keep their bodies and minds busy.

The result? The sport's popularity skyrockets. Keio, Meiji, and Waseda became the power trio of collegiate rugby in Japan, and other teams like the Doshisa University Wild Rovers became wild for the scrummage.

The Keio Unicorns and Waseda Big Bears have been battling in their annual contest since 1924. Yasuhito, Prince Chichibu of Japan, was among the avid patrons of rugby in the Imperial House. During Prince Chichibu's lifetime, Japan Rugby Football Union ball Shigeru Kayama marketed the game after a business trip overseas.

It only took one match of the match between the Unicorns and Big Bears to affirm Chichibu's affection for rugby. He would go on to take the reins of the Union in 1926 and was honorary head until his death in 1953.

For his patronage to the sport, Prince Chichibu (Chichibunomiya) Memorial Stadium in Kita-Aoyama, Minato City, Tokyo is named in his honor, complete with a statue.

The growth of the game in Japan resulted in breakthrough wins such as a 38-5 victory over Canada (more on them later on in this piece) in late January 1932 and victories by Keio and Waseda over a combined Australian universities XV two years later.

Alas, rugby was not without its saboteurs. The Tojo regime was unwelcoming to the sport in spite of support from the Imperial Family and World War II left untold numbers of players dead. But those in Japan who thought it was going to be full time for rugby union didn't know a thing about rugby union.

No, instead it experienced a resurgency. September 1945 saw matches held in Kyoto and Hokkaido. Steelworkers in Kobe took to the game as a morale booster later that year. Universities such as Cambridge and Oxford toured Japan in the 1950's and the red roses of England's national team toured Japan in 1971. In that match, which took place September 29, 1971, England squeaked out a 6-3 victory.

Japanese rugby at the time faced major hurdles, some which still endure today.

Land in Japan is at a premium, and so it's no surprise to see pitches suitable for used for matches from early in the morning to late in the evening. The diet of its players, while in recent times changing to that which is similar to other countries, has resulted in a size discrepancy in comparison to its counterpart for most of its history. 

Finally, the concept of "shamateurism" (thanks, Paul Gallico) has run rampant in the Japanese rugby ranks. You see, the corporations in Japan have fed its best players to the national team. In Japan's Top League, teams such as Suntory Sungoliath, NEC Green Rockets and Toshiba Brave Lupus are household names, among others.

While the issue of shamateurism in this sport was solved by the International Rugby Board declaring the sport "open" in 1995, gaijin have-through the corporate teams-played for Japan. Notable former gaijin who donned the red and white hoops with blacks shorts and socks include Tonga's Sinali Latu and New Zealander Andrew Miller.

Gaijin playing for the national team today include locks Daniel Quate and Luke Thompson; flankers Michael Leitch and Philip O'Reilly; number eight Sione Vatuvei; centres Ryan Nicholas (pictured), Bryce Robins and Alisi Tupuailei; and flyhalves James Arlidge and Shawn Webb.

Despite the hurdles, the Cherry Blossoms have stood tall.

An October 1983 match saw Wales eke out a 29-24 win in an intense affair at the Cardiff Arms Park. And in what was a down year for rugby in Scotland, Japan defeated the Thistles in a match that was not an official test match, but was still a breakthrough 28-24 victory at the Prince Chichibu Stadium for Japan.

With all that Japan has accomplished as a rugby country, I say they are lucky to be able to qualify as Asia's team with they talent they have. Japan has qualified for every Rugby World Cup ever contested.

The USA can't claim that. They have made it to every Rugby World Cup save 1995, which saw Argentina edge out the Eagles on aggregate, 44-33.

Even with Argentina getting a free pass as the top team in the Americas, the Canucks have forced the States to have to deal with the patsies from Uruguay at the Charrua for the last three editions. Never mind that a setback against Chile in '03 qualifying forced the Eagles themselves to do repechage work and trounce Spain on aggregate 120-26.

Japan is blessed to not have to deal with a team of Argentina's or Canada's or even the USA's caliber when qualifying. Especially with Kirwan reinvigorating the "Samurai Spirit" to the national team in recent years, the path through Asia goes through Japan.

You don't beat the Cherry Blossoms, and the detour in the forest leads you to Repechage City, and I say this to you on your way there: good luck with that!

In 1991, an impressive 28-16 victory over Tonga at the Prince Chichibu Stadium was cruicial to their qualification for that Rugby World Cup In 1995, after cruising through their group, a 26-11 victory over the Mugunghwa (Rose of Sharon) saw them through.

The 1999 campaign saw the Sakuras qualifying with one of their most lopsided scores to date, a 134-6 drubbing of Chinese Taipei in Singapore.

They would do it one step better in the successful 2003 campaign. Actually, Japan's contests against Chinese Taipei and Korea were brutal farces. The Mugunghwa were helpless in their 90-24 and 55-17 annihilations by the Cherry Blossoms, but they were nothing when juxtaposed to the ridiculous 120-3 and 155-3 victories over Chinese Taipei.

The latter result is noteworthy in that ties a 152-0 drubbing of Paraguay (who, for the sake of their own personal health, need to stick to soccer and their FIFA World Cup adventures) by Argentina for largest winning margin (152).

In their 2007 campaign, Japan conceded an average of 10 points per match, while scoring a little over 63 per contest. Qualification was sealed with a 54-0 drubbing of Korea. I told you these Koreans were eternal second fiddle. And they got thumped by Tonga in the repechage round.

Fast forward to February 2008, when the IRB introduced the Asian Five Nations.

According to the Board, "The IRB-supported competition, which will involve Japan, Hong Kong, Kazakhstan, Korea and the Arabian Gulf, will play an important role in the ongoing development of the game across the region.

"The tournament is considered vital for the development and expansion of rugby throughout Asia and gives Asian elite players the chance to perform in front of a significantly expanded TV audience, whilst providing a platform for development at all other levels."

Maybe the Board, as a penalty for taking the easy way out and giving the 2011 Rugby World Cup bid to New Zealand instead of Japan, should have changed the wording to this:

"This IRB-sponsored sham of a round-robin which will involve Japan and all the other also-rans who are not in Japan's league in any way whatsoever, will play an important role in the cruel, but ongoing truth: that the only team in Asia that will qualify and get drubbed in predictable fashion by the rest of the world is Japan.

"While we could care less about the development and expansion of rugby throughout this wasteland of a region and more about feeding the coffers of the Tier One sides while wagging our behinds at the Tier Two sides, we decided over a smoke-filled board room to give in despite our belief that Japan stinks outside of Asia and we like it that way. To sweeten the deal...we gave the 2019 Rugby World Cup to those weeaboos.

"The IRB does not believe that the Asian Five Nations is going to do much for development outside of Japan, but if someone is able to topple these shamateurist salarymen while being on TV and lauded as Asian elite players (when in reality they aren't), huzzah and banzai!"

Naturally, the Board has too much class to be crass as dictated the paragraphs shown above but you get the idea. However, the 2019 Rugby World Cup reference is indeed fact.

In the inaugural edition, Japan was tested at the beginning and at the end by Korea and Hong Kong, respectively. Nothing these Brave Blossoms can't handle; they made a clean sweep and won the first Asian Five Nations.

Last year's successful title defense saw matches held at Osaka's Kintetsu Hanazono Rugby Stadium, the home of the Japan National High School Rugby Tournament. (Well, when you think about it, just up the road is Koshien Stadium, the home of the National High School Invitational and Championship Tournaments. Co-incidence, or is it only proper? You figure it out.)

The flash-in-the-pan upstarts from Singapore (who by this point were eliminated and relegated to Division One) gave Japan an unexpected test, but the 45-15 result was the only close match in what was a series of lopsided wins.

Fast forward one more time to this year's Asian Five Nations. Japan's start to the tournament began with a 71-13 drubbing of Korea at Daegu's Gyeongsang Rugby Stadium. That was followed up a week later by a 60-5 drubbing of the Arabian Gulf side and a 101-7 demolition on Kazakhstan.

On Saturday, May 22, 2010, Japan have a chance to qualify for yet another Rugby World Cup. And before the match commences, let's say a little prayer for the Dragons of the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union, who are about to get the biggest slicing and dicing of their lives.

In fact, an upset of this proportion hasn't happened since June 7, 1998 (a 17-16 heartbreaker). The Dragons have never defeated Japan in over a decade, and you would be just plain stupid if you think this trend will be bucked at Prince Chichibu's house.

While there are those will dismiss Japan as a bunch of wilting wannabes who are trying to breaking into the exclusive club of  countries in the first tier (hey Sakuras, don't forget that there are six others in your tier that want in on the G10 of the IRB, too, including the USA), they aren't called the Brave Blossoms for nothing.

They are brave for keeping their faith in the sport despite the woes of war. They are brave for standing tall in respectable defeats by opposition outside of their region. And they are especially brave for  running up the score on competition inside their region.

Go in the fray and confound your Asian foes once again, you Brave Sakuras. For the Land of the Long White Cloud awaits you next year.

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