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Japan hit rankings high to buoy World Cup hopes

Japan beat Scotland 28-21 on Sunday © AFP / William WEST

TOKYO, Japan, Oct 14Japan rose to a record rankings high of seventh on Monday after their historic run to the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals, providing some respite as the host nation reels from a deadly typhoon.

As rival teams and Japan’s public united in praise, the Brave Blossoms climbed to one place above France, and also higher than Scotland, Argentina and Italy.

It came on the back of Sunday’s 28-21 win over Scotland which put Japan into their first World Cup quarter-final at the top of Pool A, and in some style after four superb running tries.

The game had added poignancy as it came a day after Typhoon Hagibis smashed through Japan, killing dozens of people and triggering landslides and flooding. The match was only confirmed at the last minute after safety inspections.

“The brave performance of Japan Rugby Team, who never give up, will give courage and energy to those who suffered damage from the typhoon,” tweeted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Typhoon Hagibis caused widespread flooding © AFP / Kazuhiro NOGI

Sunday’s victory carried echoes of 2011 when the Japanese women’s football team lifted the World Cup, embodying the resilience of a nation recovering from the deadly earthquake and tsunami earlier that year.

Although reports of the typhoon dominated Japanese newspapers, the rugby victory featured on the front pages of all the major titles, including the Nikkei business daily.

“Cherry in full bloom,” the mass-circulation Yomiuri Shimbun wrote in a headline, using Japan’s original nickname of the Cherry Blossoms — now usually given as the Brave Blossoms.

“Japan’s strength is real,” Yomiuri said.

– ‘Tier One nation’ –

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Fans danced in the streets of Tokyo after Sunday’s win, which kept Japan unbeaten in four games at the tournament with 19 points out of a possible 20, including bonus points.

Japanese fans celebrated late into the night © AFP / Anne-Christine POUJOULAT

“They made history,” shouted Masato Shimada at a Tokyo fanzone, as a group of celebrating Japanese fans blocked the capital’s famous, five-way Shibuya crossing, said to be the world’s busiest.

“I think it’s fair to say their back-to-back wins have brought some hope to people,” Shimada said.

Japan now head into a quarter-final against South Africa on Sunday and their wins, and the manner of their performances, have made World Cup rivals sit up and take notice.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said Japan should now be regarded as a Tier One nation — meaning the Six Nations and Rugby Championship sides — after their rise up the rankings.

“Without a doubt, they would have to be considered like they are playing and performing like a Tier One nation,” said Hansen.

“They are now in the top eight in the world on performance. They are playing quality rugby so I think Japan should be very, very proud.”

France scrum-half Baptiste Serin said Japan, with their quick thought and handling combined with strong structural play, were “doing good for today’s rugby”.

“They have an inspiring style, you can see they have self-belief,” said the admiring Serin, praising Japan’s “technical quality”.

“What strikes me is the way they have of being available for each other, of always backing each other up.”

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Japan captain Michael Leitch said he was unable to sleep Sunday night as he kept replaying the game in his head.

“Looking back, even since 2011, this team has grown so much — and it’s scary to think how far this team can grow,” he warned.

“The last four games, we’ve been getting better each time and our confidence is growing.”

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