TOKYO -- The Japan fans woke from their rugby dream to the sound of South African cheers reverberating around Tokyo.
But as the Springboks' insurmountable lead grew in this Rugby World Cup quarterfinal, still the local supporters shouted, hoped and desperately clung to tentative hopes of a second rugby miracle. Michael Leitch, the Japan captain, was still cheered to the rafters every time he got the ball; every knock-on or penalty in their favour was still welcomed like it was their lifeline. But as this World Cup has increasingly shown, there is no room for sentimentality, and under the night sky on their own patch of land, Japan's fairytale tournament was brought to an abrupt finish, as the Springboks closed it out with a 26-3 victory. They will play Wales in Sunday's semifinal, an evenly matched final four game with the winner facing either England or New Zealand in the final.
The harder Japan battled, the more South Africa pulled away -- this must be what it's like to be slowly sinking into quicksand. The Springboks perfected the art of using their impenetrably superb defence as a means of generating points through Handre Pollard's boot and cemented their spot in the semifinals of the World Cup, thanks to a one-two combination punch of Faf de Klerk and Makazole Mapimpi's tries.
The Springboks did a masterful job of shutting down space. They stopped Japan's free-flowing, beautiful rugby at the source and were happy to play without the ball in the hosts' half. There were flashes of brilliance from Kenki Fukuoka -- please can he can postpone his medical degree to play a while longer? -- and the usual Bullet Train-like running from Kotaro Matsushima, but unlike in their previous matches in this World Cup, they found their running lines blocked, and the lack of a Plan B left Japan playing into South African hands. For all their sleight-of-hand offloads, the Springboks had done their homework and stood, waiting.
Their desperation to reverse the game's flow led to their discipline disintegrating, and the Boks were allowed to close the match out in the final 20 minutes through patience as they waited for opportunities and, having squandered at least four clear-cut chances previously, took them in the last quarter.
Japan knew what was coming all week but couldn't find a way to stop it. The six-two split on the Boks' bench between forwards and backs was them preemptively guarding against the Japan counter attack as the game ticked on, allowing them to bolster their forwards with fresh legs. They used their advantage in size and height well, and though Japan did well to match them in the set piece -- they trained with the starting pack up against a 10-man scrum in training -- they could not halt the Springboks' go-forward when they got their bigger ball carriers into space. They peppered them with the high ball, kept their lightning backs facing their own tryline and then pounced. De Klerk's try was indicative of the game plan: The Boks mauled forwards, Malcolm Marx took the ball off the back, drew the defender and offloaded, and De Klerk went over. It was so simple but so effective. They march on, but for Japan, their remarkable, endearing campaign has come to an end.
As the gong sounded to signal the end of the match, Pollard turned to his left and booted the ball into the red and white crowd. It was the pin bursting the balloon. Both teams crouched, an immediate aftermath void of any celebrations. South Africa were exhausted, having defended for much of the game, and Japan were deflated. But still their supporters stayed in the stadium, soaking up the last few moments of their World Cup. Leitch was soon up for interview and back came the ear-splitting cry of "Leeeitch" from his adoring fans. He still had his gumshield in; the match had finished five minutes previous, but he was still playing it in his mind. He wasn't ready for it to end quite yet.
There were tears in the stands, the red and white face paint smudged. But there need not be despair. Japan have brought something new to rugby's top table: They have proven that rugby is still a game for smaller players, they have taken the sport to a new level of national interest, and they have encouraged a nation to dream. But what has been perhaps most striking and their true legacy is their unity. The 'arrow' formation they walk off in at the end of their warm-up is a remarkable sight and not remotely a gimmick. They have a team drawn from all corners of the rugby world but have come together under one flag, playing a brand of rugby that has won new fans and drawn envious eyes from other nations.
The sport now needs to be open-minded and not a closed shop. Japan have made a mockery of their "tier two" status and have embodied respect for their own team and the opposition. They have earned every opportunity heading forward, and the sport needs to find a way to ensure that they aren't limited to making an impact every four years.
They have achieved their pre-tournament goal. No longer are they known for just the "miracle match" of four years ago, when they beat South Africa in one of the greatest sporting upsets of all time. They are now seen as a top-eight side in their own right. Once the disappointment of being knocked out of the tournament subsides, there should be immense pride. For five weeks, Japan won our rugby hearts and ensured they will be remembered for decades to come for the time they had the sport enthralled and a nation dreaming of success.