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Japan’s South African stalwart Pieter Labuschagne drives strength in diversity

A South Korean and a Tongan prop up the scrum. The ball is hooked past an Australian who runs the line-outs before a Japanese scrumhalf spins it out to a Samoan centre with a fleet-footed New Zealander waiting on the wing.

Of the 31 players representing Japan’s Brave Blossoms at the Rugby World Cup, 16 are foreign born. Only Tonga (19) and Samoa (18) have more. But with Japan’s squad encompassing seven different nationalities, it is the most diverse at the tournament.

The team — captained by New Zealand-born Michael Leitch — is also arguably a microcosm of Japan. As shown in a CNN report last year, the numbers of foreign nationals now working in the country have swelled from 300,000 in 2007 to 1.46 million in 2018. What’s more, these imports are welcome additions as 59% of Japanese polled believed immigrants make the country stronger.

READ: Japanese superfan turns body into canvas for World Cup

One step at a time

South African flanker Pieter “Lappies” Labuschagne typifies Japan’s diversity and has repaid the love of the public in kind. He skippered Japan to a famous 19-12 win over Ireland — Leitch had started on the bench, though he was introduced in the first half — before steering the team to within touching distance of the quarterfinals after a 38-19 triumph over Samoa.

“It’s not one I would have set out for myself, but it’s definitely been a really good one,” he told CNN World Rugby’s Alex Thomas when reflecting on his career. “I’ve enjoyed every minute since we’ve been in Japan. Not only me, my family as well. The people are amazing and friendly. Japan is a beautiful country. They have a great culture over here. You just want to represent Japan and all the people you know.”

The 30-year-old Labuschagne still speaks with the thick Afrikaans accent from his native Pretoria, but quoted a Japanese proverb when speaking about the his side’s tantalizing prospects.

“We have a saying in Japan that says ‘ippo ippo mae e,’ which means one step at a time,” Labuschagne said when asked about the possibility of facing his countrymen in the last eight.

Japan will face South Africa if it beats Scotland on Sunday in Yokohama. The game is in doubt as Typhoon Hagibis is scheduled to make landfall on Saturday and has already caused the cancellation of two World Cup fixtures — England against France and Italy against New Zealand. If the game does not go ahead as planned, the result will be rendered a 0-0 draw with both Japan and Scotland sharing two points apiece.

With the Brave Blossoms topping Pool A with 14 points ahead of Ireland on 11 and Scotland on 10, the host will secure passage to the quarterfinals for the first time in its history with a win or a weather-enforced draw.

READ: ‘They feel they can win’: George Gregan on Japan’s World Cup hopes

Representing the (adopted) nation

Japan has defied expectations at this World Cup. The historic win over South Africa in the last edition was heralded at the time as the greatest shock in rugby’s history. But that was widely chalked off as a one-off event.

“We had a goal going in to the World Cup and we know we haven’t achieved it yet,” said Labuschagne.

“We knew people didn’t really give us a chance [before the Ireland game] but we knew how hard we had worked and we had prepared really well for the game,” he added.

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“There was a belief that we could actually win the game. Within the team there was a really good feeling.”

That good feeling is fueled by cultures from across the globe. But Japan is more than a home for rugby’s nomads — a formidable unit which draws strength from diversity.

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