Photo/IllutrationMembers of the Brave Blossoms Japanese squad at the Rugby World Cup smile after a news conference on Oct. 21 in Tokyo’s Minato Ward. (Shiro Nishihata)

In the Rugby World Cup now being hosted by Japan, the nation’s squad won all four of its pool stage matches to secure the top spot in Pool A and advance to the knockout stage for the first time.

The achievement marked a spectacular and historic run for the Brave Blossoms in the sport’s marquee tournament.

The Japanese side failed to reach the semifinals as it was beaten by South Africa, a two-time World Cup winner, in the quarterfinals on Oct. 20.

Still, the Brave Blossoms’ unexpectedly brilliant performance captured the hearts of Japanese, including many who were not much interested in the event before it began.

Beating an opponent assumed to be stronger in an upset is one of the most inspiring moments in sports. But it is often said that an upset is a rarity in the world of rugby.

Rugby is a sport in which 15 players work as a powerful, well-oiled machine to carry the ball forward while battling hard with the opponents hell-bent on thwarting their efforts.

A rugby squad is usually a unit composed of widely different types of players, from beefy, towering giants who stand more than 2 meters tall to small, agile dynamos less than 1.7 meters in height.

Each player has a clearly defined role to perform and unique responsibilities to fulfill. Rugby is an exacting test of stamina as it involves many fierce forms of collisions.

What separates winners from losers in this sport is whether a team has a truly integrated mix of the resources and capabilities required, including a large pool of competitive players to draw on, a coherent, deep-layered strategy and a rich reservoir of experience.

The simple fact is that the stronger side almost always wins.

Japan became the first Asian country to win its group in a Rugby World Cup, the tough sport’s showcase event.

In a news conference after the end of their dream World Cup run, many members of the Japanese team and staff talked about “pride” and “growth.”

This achievement has been long in the making.

The story of the roaring success started some two decades ago, when leaders of the Japanese rugby community conceived the ambitious idea of hosting a World Cup. They were trying to figure out a way to open up a new, brighter future for the sport in Japan after a period of heightened popularity came to a sputtering end.

The rugby community integrated three regional leagues into the Top League in 2003 and Japan joined an international league of Southern Hemisphere powerhouses.

Through these steps, Japan gradually raised its international stature in the rugby world.

The World Rugby regulations do not require players to represent their own countries in a World Cup. Japan’s 31-men squad includes 15 born in other countries.

More than half of these foreign-born members of the Japanese side developed their rugby skills at high schools or universities in Japan.

The Japan Rugby Football Union’s passion for promoting the sport and turning Japan into a major rugby power has attracted young people with various nationalities, producing a national team that reflects Japan’s increasing social diversity.

Japan has built a team that compensates for its smaller average body size with great momentum, sophisticated skill sets and a strong esprit de corps.

One big question is whether the fire of interest in the sport created by the World Cup will keep burning beyond the tournament and spread further in the country, leading to a larger number of people playing it and higher levels of performance by the Japanese squad.

The rugby union is considering making the Top League truly professional. In addition to this, the union needs to map out a future for Japanese rugby from a broad perspective and take steps based on the perspective, such as closer cooperation with other Asian nations and traditional rugby powers.

The legacies of the World Cup are not limited to the Brave Blossoms’ strong performance.

In Kitakyushu, where Wales held its pre-tournament training camp, 15,000 citizens attended their open training session and welcomed the team by singing "Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau," the Welsh national anthem.

Many Japanese fans have come out to cheer for all the teams, exhilarating supporters from their own countries.

In return, many teams have shown gestures of goodwill and friendship, such as bowing to spectators after games in the Japanese “ojigi” style, which is a way for Japanese to express their gratitude.

Canadian squad members, after their last pool match was canceled by a typhoon, volunteered to help the city of Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, where the game was to be held, clean up from typhoon damage while sharing their regret over the cancellation with local residents.

Their show of support for people affected by the typhoon lit up the hearts of many Japanese.

Hopefully, the remaining four games in the tournament, which ends on Nov. 2, will also inspire and excite the nation by demonstrating the highest level of rugby play.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 22