Fri, Sep 14, 2007 - Page 23 News List

Japan lose narrowly to Fiji, but win more fans


A young Japan supporter stands in front of her country's flag before the game against Fiji in Toulouse, France, on Wednesday.


Although Japan narrowly failed to record their first World Cup win in 16 years, their 35-31 loss to Fiji in a tense match on Wednesday won over a whole stadium of fans thanks to their thrilling attacking rugby.

By the end of the match at Stadium Toulouse, some 36,000 fans stood to applaud Japan. Like in a theater encore, Japan's players went to each side of the stadium, linked arms and bowed while fans chanted "Japon! Japon!"

The rugby-mad city of Toulouse adopted Japan as its second team -- even though the Asian team have not won at the World Cup since beating Zimbabwe in 1991 -- and coach John Kirwan's players stayed for several minutes on Wednesday to milk the applause.

"The sound coming from the crowd was amazing," Japan's New Zealand-born Luke Thompson said. "It was a huge motivation. It was one of the highlights of my life. Looking back now we should have won. We played our hearts out. We are heartbroken. All the guys are gutted."


Thompson scored two tries, but Japan could not find a way past a desperate Fiji defense in the final minutes. By which point, the crowd was now cheering on Japan so loudly it could have been France that was playing.

"We are happy we received good support, especially in the last five minutes," Japan center Koji Taira said. "I thought we could win after Luke Thompson's [second] try. The crowd lifted and we all came together, but it wasn't to be."

As a player, Kirwan was known as an exciting, try-scoring winger with New Zealand. Now, as coach of Japan, he seems to have instilled a similar sense of panache and flair.

"We receive great support wherever we play in the world," prop Tatsukichi Nishiura said. "The world over loves the Japanese style of play."


The players are in the mood to thrill fans again at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium against Wales on Sept. 20.

"When we play Wales, we want to show the Japanese style of rugby," center Shotaro Onishi said.

Japan's players began to tire midway through the second half -- but the spirit remained.

"I think the boys dug deep, 80 minutes we played, even 85," flyhalf Bryce Robins said. "There was a lot of heart, guys were playing out of position and I had said to JK [Kirwan] before the match that I am happy to play anywhere, but No. 9?"

Robins had to switch from flyhalf to scrumhalf after the interval because of an injury to Tomoki Yoshida.

"He [Kirwan] might have me on the wing next week and then I'll have all the positions covered," Robins joked.

Kirwan was impressed with how his team maintained a high tempo, but still sees room for improvement.

"Our line speed was putting Fiji under pressure and causing them to turn over the ball. We just needed to hold on to the ball," Kirwan said. "We have to hang on to the ball and recycle it. If we do that we will put any team under pressure. Now we need to build an intelligent game plan for Wales."

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