TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan are riding a wave of support from their fans similar to the kind of adulation the All Blacks receive in New Zealand, Brave Blossoms scrumhalf Fumiaki Tanaka said on Tuesday.
The World Cup hosts, who beat Russia in the opening game, sent local enthusiasm for the tournament soaring when they stunned Ireland 19-12 in Shizuoka on Saturday to grab control of Pool A and put themselves in contention for their first quarter-final place.
“Fans gave us a guard of honour inside Tokyo Station and there are many people talking to us outside, too,” Tanaka told reporters on Tuesday when asked about how the side were being treated after the win.
“It feels as if we’ve become what the All Blacks are in New Zealand.”
The 34-year-old is well aware of the importance of the three-times world champion All Blacks in New Zealand, having become the first ethnic Japanese player to sign a Super Rugby contract when he joined the Dunedin-based Otago Highlanders in 2013.
Fans on the street are not the only ones warming to the side and the tournament. World Rugby has highlighted the interest that stemmed from the Ireland match, with early indications that television viewership of the game may have set a record in Japan.
More than 25 million people watched the 2015 side’s match with Samoa after they had beaten the Springboks earlier in the tournament. The governing body said the early signs were that the Ireland match had exceeded that.
“While the domestic broadcast audiences are not normally published until 10 days after the event, all signs indicate a largest-ever domestic audience for a rugby match,” the governing body said in a statement.
“The match (also) occupied the top five trends on twitter in Japan, while … the largest-ever single-day Rugby World Cup fan zone attendance saw more than 120,000 fans enjoy the experience the length and breadth of the nation.”
Tournament organisers also said that it was headed for a sell out with 96% of tickets sold as of the opening day on Sept. 20.
Japan’s next match is against Samoa on Saturday in Toyota City, where Tanaka said their mind was only on winning the game first and then securing a bonus point that could be vital ahead of their final pool match against Scotland on October 13.
“We definitely have the ability to score tries, but we could give away chances if we focus on it too much and make mistakes,” he added.
“So we are thinking about winning first and foremost to get the points, and if there’s a chance (for a bonus point) that’s something we always have in our minds.”