The sport marks its 20th anniversary of turning professional. But how far has it really progressed?
Having begun in the most dramatic and encapsulating fashion, Japan’s Rugby World Cup campaign ended with a 28-18 victory over the United States that left them as the first team to win three pool stage games and go out.
Tries from Kotaro Matsushima, Yoshikazu Fujita and Amanaki Mafi helped earn a another well-deserved victory, but the occasion in Gloucester was the ultimate anti-climax, coming three weeks after they shocked the tournament by beating South Africa.
Despite falling to their fourth defeat, the US were no pushovers and ended their own campaign with a spirited performance as tries from Takudzwa Ngwenya and Chris Wyles kept them in the contest throughout.
Scotland’s victory over Samoa on Saturday had ensured that Japan, who will host the tournament in 2019, could finish no better than third in Pool B, and they ended two points adrift of the Scots and four behind group winners South Africa.
“It’s disappointing but we had a great World Cup. We played as well as we can today,” Japan coach Eddie Jones said.
“It has been fantastic. The guys have all played above themselves and worked hard and with a real spirit and how rugby should be played.”
Following the advent of five-team groups in 2003, no team had won three of their four pool stage encounters and not progressed to the next round.
Yet Japan’s failure to pick up bonus points in any of their matches and their tired defeat to Scotland four days after their Springbok shock proved to be their undoing and ensured there was nothing but pride to play for at the Kingsholm Stadium.
Meanwhile, Ireland beat France 24-9 in a brutal Cardiff encounter to earn a quarter-final meeting with Argentina, leaving the well-beaten French the daunting prospect of facing New Zealand.
In the most eagerly awaited match outside of Pool A, Ireland overcame their Six Nations rivals for the first time in four World Cup meetings.
But the win came at a heavy cost, with the flyhalf Johnny Sexton and captain Paul O’Connell in danger of missing the rest of the tournament.