'Big thank you' from Japan fans to Brave Blossoms

Tokyo (AFP) –


Japan's rugby fans had nothing but praise Sunday for their team's fairytale march to the World Cup quarter-finals that came crashing down with a 26-3 defeat to South Africa.

The Brave Blossoms have captured the imagination of a country hooked on baseball and sumo and supporters packed out fanzones and tuned in in their millions to watch the game on TV.

"I want to tell them a big thank-you for the inspiration," said 32-year-old businessman Akihito Kojima at a fanzone in downtown Tokyo.

Captain Michael Leitch pronounced himself "not satisfied" even with his team's historic run to the last-eight and some fans already had their sights on loftier goals.

"This is not our goal. Our goal is a tournament victory," said Satoshi Sekihata, 33, a dentist from Chiba prefecture, who played rugby in college.

At the Tokyo fanzone, supporters erupted in thunderous roars every time the Japanese players threatened the Springbok line -- mirroring the tens of thousands of Brave Blossom fans at Tokyo Stadium.

Spectators stood on tip-toe to catch a glimpse of the giant screens and even those who could barely see a thing were belting out loud cheers anyway.

"I cannot believe how the whole of Japan has gone rugby-mad," said Takuya Okumura, a 30-year-old businessman who lives in Brazil but was on a business trip to his home land this month.

"It's like football. If the national team does well, then fans follow," he said.

"Tokyo will host the summer Olympics next year. Maybe this is an opportunity for the popularity of rugby to rise."

- 'Kicks to the heavens' -

World Rugby brought the tournament to Japan -- the first time the global showcase has featured in Asia -- to tap into a new audience and some education has definitely been required in the finer points of the game.

Ever since the tournament started, national television networks have aired special programmes to explain the rules, techniques and strategies of rugby.

Newspapers have used elaborate graphics to do the same, with top selling daily Yomiuri Shimbun using its Sunday morning edition to warn the Brave Blossoms about "kicks to the heavens", referring to South African scrum-half Faf de Klerk's high box kicks.

The Nikkei business daily warned readers ahead of the game that the Springboks have their guards high "unlike the last tournament" four years ago when Japan famously upset the two-time champions.

Phrasing it in a way Japanese readers can relate to, the paper said: "It will be like an enormous yokozuna (sumo grand champion) charging head-on," the paper said.

This turned out to be a fair analogy as some of the hits the Springboks put on their Japanese counterparts must have felt like a sumo clash.

Many fans were keen to look to the future and Rintaro Watanabe, an 18-year-old who plays on the wing for his high-school team, said Japan's historic run should encourage more young athletes to try the sport.

"With the new-found popularity, we will see more children playing rugby," he predicted.

South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus was quick to pay tribute to the Japanese team and the fans, saying they should be proud of the way they have hosted the 2019 World Cup.

And they seem to have made some fans even among opposition supporters.

"They (Japan) are a force to be reckoned with," said South African native Michael Raats, 33, adding that Japan seemed to have got better as the tournament progressed.