TOKYO (AP) – Emergency crew were on high alert. Flights and trains were cancelled. Rugby stars here for the World Cup mostly heeded the same warnings as everyone else and stayed indoors as Japan braced to be hit by a typhoon tipped to be its worst in six decades.
Tokyo Disneyland was shut. Shops were closed, shelves empty in some places as people stockpiled provisions. Images of massive waves pounding into Japan’s main island were all over the media. Formula One qualifying for the Japanese Grand Prix was postponed, the Suzuka circuit too dangerous, and two Rugby World Cup games scheduled for yesterday had already been cancelled.
And what was Michael Leitch and his Japan squad doing amid all this? Slogging through shin-deep water to get onto a sodden rugby field in downtown Tokyo to prepare for a game against Scotland that may not even be played today. This squad does things its own way.
“Discipline is crucial when the game gets tight,” Leitch was quoted as saying by the national news agency.
They’ve certainly been disciplined. Japan won three games at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, including the epic upset of two-time champion South Africa, but still missed out on the quarter-finals.
Despite the against-the-odds nature of that campaign, missing out on the knockout stage deeply hurt the players. Ultimately, it was a loss to Scotland that cost them.
Four years later, Japan has again won three games – including an upset of an Irish team that was ranked number one before the tournament – and has a hot chance to become the first Asian team to qualify for the knockout stage of rugby’s marquee tournament. It just happens to be being staged for the first time in Asia, albeit at the end of typhoon season.
Head coach Jamie Joseph pointed out on Friday, when he was riled by reports that Japan would get an easy ride to the knockouts if today’s game was cancelled, that his team was just as desperate as Scotland to play.
Ireland beat Samoa at Fukuoka – the only one of three scheduled games yesterday that wasn’t cancelled two days ahead of time – meaning Scotland need to beat Japan to advance.
The Japanese squad have been in camp for 240 days this year, Joseph noted, fully committed to the World Cup cause and making plenty of personal sacrifices for it. They want this.
Japan haven’t beaten Scotland in seven previous tests, and has conceded 17 tries while scoring just three against the Scots in three previous World Cup encounters. But those aren’t statistics that bother Joseph, considering some of the upsets Japan have caused.
The squad that some critics considered to be an assembly of rugby expats have certainly won the support of the host nation, probably because perseverance is a primary trait.
Joseph is a former New Zealand forward who played against Japan at the 1995 World Cup, and then switched to play for Japan in 1999. And now he’s coach.
Leitch was born in New Zealand, has Fijian heritage, but moved to Japan at age 15 and is playing in his third World Cup, his second as captain.
He’s teak tough, and a leader who exemplifies the team-first attitude. Players like halves partners Yutaka Nagare and Yu Tamura and winger Kenki Fukuoka have highlighted the increasing depth of the homegrown talent pool.
The Scots initially threatened legal action if the last of the pool games was cancelled instead of moved or played in an empty stadium, but Joseph said his team wanted to play to finish off a perfect pool stage and prove beyond any doubt they belong among the eight most elite teams.