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Land of the rising scrum: World Cup fever sweeps Japan
[TOKYO] Long queues for replica shirts, desperate searches for tickets and TV stations showing Japan's wins on a loop: excitement is building ahead of the host nation's historic Rugby World Cup quarter-final against South Africa.
In baseball-mad Japan, rugby coverage is still secondary to the national passion but a day before kick-off against the Springboks, the oval-ball game was having its moment in the Land of the Rising Sun.
The Yomiuri Shimbun educated its millions of readers on scrummaging technique in a piece entitled: "The scrum of Sakura (Cherry Blossoms, the Japan team's original nickname), a precision machine." The article explained some of the mysteries of the scrum to a public perhaps not au fait with some of the finer points of the set-piece, noting how the forwards adjust their body position by a matter of centimetres to achieve maximum pressure.
Even the financial press have been carrying rugby articles, with the Nikkei business daily drafting in former player Kensuke Iwabuchi to comment on Sunday's match-up - Japan's World Cup quarter-final.
Mr Iwabuchi said the key to the match would lie in "discipline and patience" and noted how home advantage was proving to be a critical factor in the Brave Blossoms' winning streak.
"The cheers from the crowd has been a big supporting force. In the match against Scotland, it was as if the 15 were not fighting against 15 but 70,015," he said, adding that tickets had been sold out for almost all matches.
Rugby tickets are now like gold dust in Japan, with several fans taking to Twitter to plead for spares.
"Could someone sell me one or two Japan-SAfrica tickets please? I've heard there would be some ticket sales on the day but probably you can't get one unless you queue up from the previous day," one desperate man tweeted.
Those not lucky enough to have tickets are watching in huge numbers on TV. A peak of more than 50 per cent of the country tuned in to watch Japan's last pool game against Scotland according to ratings company Video Research.
Even higher ratings are expected for the match against South Africa, by far the biggest match in Japan's rugby history.
Rugby is also featuring on daytime television, with NTV's hugely popular morning show devoting a large segment to the Springbok match on Sunday.
When a rugby expert noted South Africa would play its strongest team, the show's star presenter Koji Kato exclaimed: "Good!" "This means Japan will let the strongest team down," Mr Kato said, drawing laughter from others on the show.
Several TV channels are replaying some of Japan's best moments from the World Cup so far, including their 28-21 win over Scotland that guaranteed them a pool top spot and the right to face the Boks.
Images of Japan 34-32 "Miracle of Brighton" defeat of South Africa in 2015 are being repeated endlessly, while clips showing a buoyant atmosphere within the Japanese camp have been going viral - including one of the players singing "Victory Road" to the tune of "Take Me Home, Country Roads".
The Japanese are crazy for "omiyage" or "souvenirs" of an experience or event and Brave Blossoms replica shirts are flying off the shelves.
Every morning outside a sports equipment store near the Japanese training ground, a long queue snakes around the block as both foreign and local fans try to get their hands on a precious red and white jersey - at up to 10,000 yen (S$125) apiece.