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Japan rugby team needs tougher competition

by Rich Freeman

Japan’s rugby players go into Sunday’s game with South Korea at Tondaemun Stadium in Seoul knowing that a win will ensure qualification for the 2003 Rugby World Cup finals.

However, such has been Japan’s domination of the Asian qualifying group, that even if its archrival was to sneak a win, Japan would still qualify with a victory the following week against lowly Taiwan.

In its two home games Japan has scored 23 tries in amassing 245 points while conceding just 27. South Korea, on the other hand, has scored 197 points against 128 in the three games it has played. Taiwan, meanwhile has scored just 41 points and given away 328, ensuring that the game against Japan on July 21 is just a formality.

Cynics would no doubt claim that the one-sided nature of the games has been a result of Japan being the only side to contain “foreign” players, but that would be missing the point. While the Southern Hemisphere element has no doubt helped the “Cherry Blossoms” the growing professionalism within the game in Japan has had an even more profound effect, and it is no coincidence that an increasing number of Japanese players have furthered their rugby education overseas.

Kensuke Iwabuchi is a full-time professional with the Saracens club in England; Wataru Murata spent two years with Bayonne in France; Ryohei Miki spent a season with Stirling County in Scotland; Daisuke Ohata has spent two summers in Sydney playing club rugby; and Soshi Fuchigami and captain Takuro Miuchi both spent two years at Oxford University. Add the New Zealand and Tongan influence of Andy Miller, Adam Parker, Dean Anglesey and Luantagi Vatuvei and an Australian assistant coach in Gary Wallace, and it is no surprise why Japan is streets ahead of any other Asian team on the field.

The new Super League (due to start in 2003) will see a greater number of competitive games and will attract more foreigners to Japan. Former Wallaby center Tim Horan, recently said, “A number of present Wallabies will come over here after the World Cup.”

At this stage it would seem that all is well with the game, but as Horan pointed out: “It took Japan three or four years to get over that huge loss (145-17) to New Zealand in the 1995 World Cup.”

Shogo Mukai and manager Hiroaki Shukuzawa need to see to it that the recent good run is only the beginning and that the team builds on its results.

But herein lies the problem as Japan continues to increase the gap between itself and its neighbors. Japan needs a healthy domestic and international schedule so that its players are continually playing against the best. Games such as last Saturday’s when Japan beat Taiwan 155-3 do more harm than good.

Andy Miller, who amazingly set a new national record for conversions with 12 — despite only kicking in the second half, summed it up best. “It didn’t do them any good and it didn’t do us any good in terms of preparation for the Korean game.”

New Zealand referee Kelvin Deaker spoke on behalf on the rugby purists when asked what he thought of the game. “I didn’t enjoy it at all,” he said. “It was a no-contest. Taiwan were totally outclassed and were never in it.”

Mukai has to make sure that his players keep their feet on the ground. While Japan has appeared at every World Cup it has only won one game — 52-8 over Zimbabwe in 1991. For players like Yuya Saito to already be talking about Japan beating Scotland and Fiji to advance to the quarterfinals is premature.

The progress made by the national team has been very good but in 1999 Japan won the Epson Cup only for it to lose all three games in the World Cup.

Horan hit the nail on the head when he said, “Japan need to play teams like Tonga and Fiji as part of their build up.” Playing the likes of England (which is rumored to be coming here next year) could do more harm than good. Players need to assure their confidence remains on a high.

Talking of confidence, one can only feel sympathy for the Taiwan players. Their first game saw them put up a fight to South Korea losing only 54-31. The following week, however, they lost 119-7 to the same opposition. Last week’s result equaled the world record for the biggest winning margin in a test match. Hardly just reward for all the hard work they put in during the pre-qualifying groups.

Perhaps the Japan Rugby Football Union could help the game in Taiwan and other areas of Asia by sending its Under-21 team rather than its full test team, not only to play the last qualifying game but also to play in the Asian Games in September and the Asian Rugby Championships in November.

The Japan A team’s tour to New Zealand in May in which it lost to a number of mediocre university teams showed up a worrying lack of depth in Japanese rugby (The good are getting very good — the rest are lagging behind). The Under-21s, meanwhile, came in a very commendable ninth in the recent U-21 World Cup in South Africa beating the likes of Fiji and Italy on the way.

Sending the U-21 to Asia would result in more competitive games, would increase fan interest, would help develop the sport in the region and give young Japanese players a taste of things to come.

Getting to its fifth successive World Cup should be the base upon which Japan can further develop. Japan needs more competition at the domestic and international level in order for the national team to break into the Top 10 of world rugby.

As former Auckland, Wales and British Lions coach Graham Henry said, “2003 may be a year early for Japan but by 2007 they should be looking at a quarterfinal spot and then improve upon that in 2011.”