Samurai, stuffings and stunners: the remarkable story of rugby in Japan

Richard CARTER
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Day to remember: Japan's players celebrate beating Scotland

Japan's rugby history began with a samurai killing and has featured some embarrassing results before the Brave Blossoms' astonishing transformation into World Cup quarter-finalists.

AFP looks at some of the key moments:

- Tackling the samurai -

Rugby came to Japan in the early 1860s when Britain sent troops to Yokohama -- venue for next month's World Cup final -- to protect its subjects after samurai warriors slashed to death a British trader.

Some of those men turned out to be early rugby fans and took to playing as military tensions eased. The first mention of rugby being played in Japan dates to 1863, only 40 years after William Webb Ellis invented the game at Britain's Rugby School.

In 1866, more than 40 of these early rugby players banded together to found the Yokohama Foot Ball Club, claimed to be one of the world's first "Open" clubs -- meaning that unlike a university or school, anyone can join.

The game gained a more solid foothold at the turn of the century when two Cambridge University alumni, Edward Bramwell Clarke and the Japanese player Ginnosuke Tanaka, introduced the game at Keio University in Tokyo.

With more Japanese taking up the game, the sport's popularity grew quickly with crowds of 20,000 attending matches in the early 1930s, according to Mike Galbraith, a rugby historian in Japan.

The Japan Rugby Football Union was formed in 1926 and the national team played its first overseas matches on a tour to Canada in 1930.

- Drubbings galore -

Japan have played in every World Cup since the first edition back in 1987. They narrowly lost their World Cup debut 21-18 against the USA but then suffered the first of many drubbings, 60-7 to England.

The nadir came in 1995, when they lost 145-17 to New Zealand, still a record total. The All Blacks had 91 percent possession and ran in 21 tries in a humiliating day for the Japanese.

Japan also lost 91-3 to Australia in 2007 and 83-7 to the All Blacks in 2011. Up until 2015, Japan's World Cup record was a miserable played 24, won one, lost 21 and two draws with Canada. But it was then that their fortunes changed.

- Miracle breakthrough -

Heading into the 2015 Rugby World Cup, Japan had high hopes of improving on their derisory record and in Eddie Jones, they had a coach with an impressive history at the tournament.

But even they might not have expected the extraordinary performance they pulled off in their opening pool match against the mighty Springboks.

Three points behind in added time, captain Michael Leitch famously turned down a shot at goal that would have given them a draw, instead opting to go for the win.

When wing Karne Hesketh touched down with the last action of the game for a 34-32 victory, it was the biggest upset the Rugby World Cup has seen, and one of the greatest shocks in sport.

Japan also beat Samoa and the United States but their 45-10 loss to Scotland denied them a place in the quarter-finals, despite winning three out of four games in their pool.

However, the "miracle of Brighton" would inspire a film and, more importantly, laid the foundations for what was to come.

- Japan, a Tier-One nation? -

World Rugby bosses awarded the World Cup to Japan in 2009, the first time it has been hosted in Asia as the game seeks to tap into a potentially fertile market.

The big questions were whether fans would turn up, and whether Japan's team would withstand the pressure of hosting and give a good account of themselves.

But after an opening-night win over Russia, Japan pulled off the shock of the tournament by beating Ireland 19-12, and suddenly their first ever place in the quarter-finals was in sight.

It took an even more impressive 28-21 win over Scotland -- roared on by 67,000 fans -- to confirm their qualification as pool winners after an extraordinary night in Yokohama, when Japan's four dazzling tries sent the Scots home.

The run has already propelled Japan to seventh in the world rankings, above Six Nations giants France, leading many to say they deserve to be categorised among rugby's elite, Tier One sides.

According to World Rugby boss Bill Beaumont, Japan have made the rest of the game "sit up and notice" and "almost changed the face of how rugby should be played".