Neutrals' favourite Japan eye more scalps at 2019 Rugby World Cup

Jamie Joseph has continued the work of Eddie Jones as head coach of Japan. Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

In one of those notable twists of rugby fate, 2019 Rugby World Cup hosts Japan will kick off their tournament -- against the as-yet unconfirmed Europe 1 qualifier -- four years and one day after their famous 34-32 victory over South Africa in the 2015 tournament.

Brighton rocked when Karne Hesketh dived over in the corner after 84 exhilarating minutes of epic exhibition rugby on a September day when Japan had chosen not to die wondering.

What they had given up to the Springboks in grunt, they more than made up for with high-tempo and apparently telepathic rugby, generated by a hivemind of quicksilver rugby brains.

Japan's heroes at a sun-blessed Amex Stadium included three players who were not born when the Brave Blossoms had last won a World Cup match -- against Zimbabwe in 1991. At England 2015, they would also beat Samoa and the United States to become the first and only team in World Cup history to miss out on the knockout phase after winning three pool matches.

Much has changed in the two years and two months that have followed. Jamie Joseph has taken over the coaching reins from Eddie Jones, who left when Japan's 2015 tournament ended to become -- via an eight-day stint at Stormers -- head coach of England.

Joseph has wasted no time making his mark. Only eight members of the side that played in Brighton have been on tour this November as he blooded six players, including 23-year-old back row revelation Kazuki Himeno.

The good news for neutrals is the red-hot attacking style of 2015 remains -- as demonstrated by their fearless, lightning-fast, run-from-anywhere performance against troubled France on Saturday.

If anything, Japan can be even more exhilarating than they were two years ago. They were tremendous value for their draw against France at the U Arena -- had fly-half Yu Tamura guided a relatively straightforward 74th-minute conversion between the posts, the Brave Blossoms could have added another Tier 1 scalp in their collection.

This was no flash-in-the-pan performance. Joseph's Japan have drawn against France in Paris; beaten vociferous Six Nations hopefuls Georgia in Tbilisi; lost to a 79th-minute drop goal against Wales in Cardiff; won their 12th Asia Rugby Championship with a perfect four from four; bested another Eastern European Tier 2 powerhouse, Romania; and outplayed Tonga in Toulouse.

But they also lost their first Test series since 2005 against Ireland in June, were well beaten by Australia in September, and lost again to a World XV in October. There's no wonder, then, that Japan still like to play the underdog card.

Joseph -- who will from next season also coach Japan's Super Rugby side Sunwolves following a review into a second underwhelming season -- famously described himself as "a sardine in a shoal of tuna" when he mingled with heavyweight coaches at the draw for the 2019 tournament in May.

"Since the last World Cup, there have been a lot of changes to the team," Joseph said. "[But] I am confident that we will have enough time to prepare ourselves properly, even if we still have a long way to go."

Japan's ambition is clear. After Brighton, they have no intention of becoming the second host nation to fail to reach the quarterfinals of their World Cup. They took the another big step on the road to Tokyo on Saturday.

It will be a tough challenge. Ireland and Scotland, the side that effectively ended their 2015 hopes, will be favourites to progress from Pool A. But one year and 10 months out, the Brave Blossoms are moving in the right direction.

And, if they can ride the wave of home support, a last-eight place is not completely out of the question.