Kiwi pundits have given Japan their flowers after a surprisingly tight test match in Tokyo.
The Japanese team have been on a steady upward trajectory over the past decade. The famous victory over South Africa in the 2015 World Cup made way for the signing of head coach Jamie Joseph, who since 2016 has overseen further historic wins against Ireland, Scotland, Italy and Wales.
The growth of the Brave Blossoms was illustrated perfectly following Saturday’s match with a graphic displaying the final scores of all five of the tests now played between the two nations and the steady decline in winning margin for the All Blacks; from the 129-point victory at the 1995 World Cup to this weekend’s 7 points.
Sky’s The Breakdown panel discussed how the Japanese side have reached these new heights, sighting increased quality in their local competition, tactics around physicality and coaching as the big drivers of the success.
“I watched highlights of previous games where we did pump Japan,” Ex-Black Fern Chelsea Semple said. “And they’re just completely different athletes now.
“They’ve obviously got a lot of New Zealand rugby players or overseas internationals coming to play in their competition, their training’s ramped up, they’re physical beasts out on the field some of them, and that’s a big shift they’ve made which is why they’re able to compete physically with the All Blacks now.”
Mils Muiliana agreed the growth of the local competition has had a prosperous impact on the national team.
“The game’s changed over there now,” The ex-All Black said. “It’s changed from behind the scenes.
“The companies have got really behind the Rugby Union, they’ve invested a lot of resource into that and it’s starting to rub off.
“Even the Sunwolves being a part of Super Rugby, some of the experience that those players have had. We’ve seen it already with the Highlanders, they’ve come over and they’ve gone back.
“Them working together with the companies to get foreigners to come and sort of share some of their knowledge, that’s starting to rub off and I think it’s evident of where the players have got to n0w, they understand the physical nature of it, they’re standing up, the training’s a little bit different.”
Muliaina was also full of praise for Japan’s defence.
“The Japanese (were) outstanding, their defence was huge.
“It just felt like they (The All Blacks) were waiting for things to happen, just stick to that plan, stick to that plan, Japan will falter, they’ll start to fall off tackles… and it never happened.
“Usually, they would start to fall off and then you start to win momentum. We won a little bit of momentum, but then they got it back and scored an excellent try, they were back in the game, so this Japanese side can easily go – well they’ve done it, they’ve beaten tier one teams, so they’re certainly capable of doing that.”