TOKYO • Japanese rugby players received a hero's welcome on their return home yesterday, after their stunning England 2015 campaign boosted the popularity of a sport still unfamiliar to many locals.
Although they failed to make it through the qualifiers, Japan came away with three victories - including an astonishing win over South Africa in their opening game.
They became the first nation to take three group games but still fail to reach the quarter-finals.
After the team flew back to cheers from fans gathered at Haneda airport, coach Eddie Jones hailed the Brave Blossoms as "new sporting heroes".
"What a fantastic achievement for the team," he said in a nationally televised press conference at a Tokyo hotel ballroom, a rare treatment for the sport in a country where baseball, sumo wrestling and football reign supreme.
"They have changed Japanese rugby. Everyone talks about hard work. I worked hard. But, more importantly, they played with courage, not only physical courage but also mental courage.
"To finish the tournament ranked ninth in the world, to finish ahead of countries like England, is an absolutely amazing success story."
Previously, Japan had only ever won once at a World Cup, against Zimbabwe in 1991. But Jones said Japan could not rest on their laurels.
"Like any success story, the next chapter is so important," said the 55-year-old, who is set to leave his post to guide the Stormers Super Rugby side next season. "The next chapter for Japanese rugby is finding new players with more talent and desire, and making sure this group of players keep improving."
The national team's performances also gave the country a timely shot in the arm after they had looked in danger of losing their hosting rights for the 2019 World Cup.
Brave Blossoms captain Michael Leitch said he now looked to the next tournament on home turf.
"We were not able to reach the quarter-finals as we set out to do but to win three times at the World Cup was truly a giant step for Japanese rugby," he said. "This team has established a culture of winning.
"I want to pass this to the next Japan national team."