Jaw-dropping sport moments of 2019: Japan stun Scotland and shake up Rugby World Cup | Andy Bull
And what did you hear in the silence that fell over Yokohama Stadium before kick-off that Sunday night? Grief and sorrow, yes, for the wounded and dead, pain, pride and defiance, surely, and hope, too. Whatever it was, exactly, that all those Japanese fans and players were thinking about in that short minute, you could at least be sure of this – it all felt foreboding for the Scottish team lining up next to them. The Scots wanted this match, which both teams needed to win. They had rowed and shouted about it, and roped in lawyers to give them advice about their rights if it was cancelled, and now it was here, at last, as scheduled, and they were about to find out just how much Japan wanted it too.
The morning after typhoon Hagibis had been as bright and clear as the days before it had been confused and uncertain. The meteorologists had been warning it might be coming for a week, but hadn’t been able to say for sure exactly where or when it would land, or how strong it might be when it did. World Rugby had imagined they were ready whatever. They said they had been working on their contingency planning. But now, faced with the prospect of sorting new venues and accommodation for hundreds of players and staff, ticketing and travel for tens of thousands of fans, in the face of the worst storm in 60 years, they found there wasn’t much they, or anyone else, could do.
“The risks are just too challenging,” said tournament director Alan Gilpin. They decided they had to cancel the two matches slated to be played on the Saturday, England v France, and New Zealand v Italy, this last the hardest decision since it meant the Italians were bound to be knocked out, but made easier, they suggested, by the difference in the two team’s standings. There were four more games scheduled for the Sunday, Namibia v Canada, USA v Tonga, Wales v Uruguay, and the crucial final fixture, Japan v Scotland. They would take a view about those on Sunday morning, once it was clear how bad the damage was.
Scotland worried. “It would be very unusual for a World Cup in any sport to be decided by a game being called off on one day,” Gregor Townsend argued. His boss, Mark Dodson, the chief executive of the SRU, was even more emphatic. “For World Rugby to simply state that the game has to be cancelled goes against the whole sporting integrity of the tournament”, Dodson argued. “We’re not going to let Scotland be the collateral damage for a decision that was taken in haste.” There were mutterings about legal action. His words were wildly misjudged, and the SRU were later fined £70,000 for them.
Japan’s head coach, Jamie Joseph, returned fire. The Japanese don’t often go in for public displays of anger, but Joseph didn’t hold back. “They’ve undermined the achievements of the Japanese national team,” Joseph said. “I think the key difference here between us and Scotland is we are driven and supported by the whole country. My team is motivated by achieving something that is great - not avoiding an embarrassment.” That was on Friday. By Saturday morning the streets were quiet and the supermarket shelves empty, by the afternoon, the trains had stopped running, and the city was at a standstill.
When they finally finished counting the missing, they found that 95 people died that night, and over $15bn worth of damage was done, some of the worst of it in the country around Yokohama. As soon as it had passed, the Japanese had workers out in the stadium, clearing away debris, pumping floodwater out of the changing rooms, getting it ready for the night’s game. By mid-morning, the roads were clear and the trains were running, the police and medical services had given the go-ahead, by midday, the match was on, and by the later afternoon, the first of those 70,000 fans were starting to arrive.
Scotland scored first, a fine try, made by Finn Russell with a step and fend, but that spurred Japan on, again, into some higher realm. For the next 30 minutes they played at a level that was above and beyond anything the Scots were capable of, and which would have been a match for any other team in the tournament. They weaved dazzlingly intricate patterns, the ball flickering back and forth as fast as thought while they pressed irresistibly down field, in Kotaro Matsushima’s hands one second, Kenki Fukuoka’s the next, Shota Horie’s the one after, on and on, through Michael Leitch and Timothy Lafaele and Pieter Labuschagne. They scored four dazzling tries in 26 dizzying minutes, and won 28-21.
Japan’s motto for the World Cup was “One Team”, because the way they had pulled together such a diverse group of players, from so many different backgrounds and countries – 16 of their squad were born overseas. Japan had already beaten Ireland, but this was the night the phrase became something more than another slogan. “This game was about more than just us,” explained their captain Michael Leitch after it was over, and his team had reached the quarter-finals for the very first time. “A lot of people suffered in the typhoon for this game to happen.” Japan, you guess, will never look at its rugby team in quite the same way again, and nor will anyone else.