Rugby World Cup: Japan can inspire not only a nation but also a continent

Japan's Rugby team celebrating after defeating South Africa 34-32.
Japan's Rugby team celebrating after defeating South Africa 34-32.PHOTO: REUTERS

The ongoing Rugby World Cup has so far delivered on and off the field as a true spectacle that befits its billing as the third-most watched sporting event in the world, after the Olympics and the Fifa World Cup.

Upsets at the sport's highest level are rare. Yet, in a day, fans and the unconverted alike were treated to back-to-back shocks.

 Japan's 34-32 win over mighty South Africa is still on everyone's lips. Especially for us in Asia who play the game, this was a watershed moment.

Rugby has always been seen as a sport where Asians are smaller and not able to succeed, but Japan showed that if you play to your strengths and stick to it, all things are possible.

Yes, they do have some imports, but all 15 players have to stick together and the Cherry Blossoms showcased the ultimate team game. They can ill-afford to do nothing else.  

For someone who has been playing the game for almost all of his life at one level or another, Japan's result gives all of us a strong rebuttal to the shots of  "Asians can't play rugby".

Their start has made the game on Wednesday night (9.15pm SG Time on FOX Sports 2, Singtel TV Ch115 and StarHub Ch209) against Scotland a real cracker, but it will all be moot if Japan do not show up.

By no means is anyone fully convinced that Japan can pull out another win against a disciplined Scottish outfit. The crucial point is how Japan play.

If they continue with the passion, courage and focus they showed against the Springboks, the result is secondary as their legacy remains in inspiring not only a nation but an entire continent.

 Georgia's 17-10 win over Tonga was an upset that has been overshadowed by Japan's triumph - but it should not be overlooked. The Georgians have been to three RWCs and had a grand total of two wins going into Sunday's game.

Their last RWC victory was in New Zealand in 2011 over Romania and the mountain men showed grit and strength against the Pacific islanders, who are pretty adapt at causing shocks themselves.

Add some less-than-impressive wins by joint-favourites England and New Zealand to the mix and you have a great start to the six-week tournament.

 The off-field experience has delivered too. From the welcome ceremony for each team to fans being greeted at every turn, one can even feel the buzz from here. 

Stories of what the game is all about has emerged, and it is heartening for me to see the return of the tunnel at international games. The commentators have called it the "guard of honour", where players from each team clap for their opponents. 

At the grassroots level, this is what you learn as a player as the start of the "third half". After the war, both sides come together for a meal - and a drink, of course - to epitomise the spirit of the game.

This was best demonstrated after Japan's historic triumph at the Brighton Community Stadium. At the train station, the Japanese supporters patiently stood behind the South African supporters waiting to board, presumably following their country's metro train boarding protocol. But it was the South Africans who stood aside, forming a tunnel and clapping their Japanese counterparts onto the train.

Certainly many a sake and Castle lager were shared in London later that evening.

 World Cups, no matter the sport, have the eyes of the world on them, and it is great to see the 2015 RWC open with a bang.

If the next five weeks are like the first, we are in for an unforgettable ride.

Note: Jonathan Leow, 35, was a Singapore national rugby player and previously coached the national Under-19 team. He also played for the University of Sydney and in the lower divisions in New Zealand. He is currently the vice-president of the Singapore Rugby Union and the organising committee chairman of the Singapore Cricket Club International Rugby Sevens.