Carrying Asian hopes

by Rich Freeman

Like its opponent in its opening game, Japan goes into the World Cup knowing that the tournament marks the end of an era.

News photoAdam Parker has added some much needed bulk to the Japan pack. However, the Japanese will need to make sure they make the most of every opportunity if they are to improve on their World Cup record of just one win in 12 games.

Just as his more illustrious opponent Ian McGeechan of Scotland has decided to hang up the tracksuit, so Japan’s head coach Shogo Mukai has said that Japan’s last game in the tournament will be his last in charge of the national team.

“It is true. I have decided to leave after the Rugby World Cup because I need more time with my family,” the former fullback said.

Mukai will obviously be hoping to sign off in style and along with other members of the Japan Rugby Football Union was putting on an optimistic front when the team arrived in Sydney on Monday.

“We’re here with the aim to win all the games,” he said, though he amended that by adding, “but if we could win one game that would be a success for Japanese rugby.”

JRFU Chairman Noboru Mashimo explained that the Cherry Blossoms carried the hopes of an entire continent.

“The Japanese delegation is not only representing Japan, but Asia,” Mashimo said. “This is our fifth World Cup and unfortunately we have not been that successful so far. But we come here with the spirit that we’ll do our best and we hope to be successful.”

And with the JRFU having put its hand up as being interested in hosting the 2011 tournament a good performance is needed in order show the organizers that Japan is indeed worthy of a place in future tournaments.

However to most observers their best is simply not going to be good enough.

Going into this year’s event, Japan has won just two games out of 13 and it would be quite an achievement if it returns having improved on its World Cup record. Of the 12 games played to date Japan has won just one — a 52-8 victory over Zimbabwe in 1991.

The Japan team, which later Monday flew to its base in Townsville, will obviously be attuned to the heat and hard grounds of Northern Queensland but lack of experience against opposition of the likes of France and Scotland will surely negate any such advantage.

“Townsville is a very humid, hot place, and I think Japanese players may be more used to those conditions than some of the other teams,” Mukai said. “We also have speed in our team and a game based on a mixture of running and passing that will help us.”

However, running up cricket scores against the other rugby nations in Asia has probably held the team back. Although its performances in June and July were a marked step up from the awful way it started the year, there are many who feel Japan’s relative isolation has caused far more damage than its lack of big bulky forwards.

Interestingly there is only one foreigner, Adam Parker, in the Japanese forwards. The other three foreigners in the team being flyhalf Andy Miller and centers Reuben Parkinson and George Konia.

Earlier this month the BBC reported that the Cherry Blossoms were hoping to field a team consisting solely of Japanese nationals for the 2007 World Cup.

But this was categorically denied by JRFU Secretary Koji Tokumasu on Tuesday.

“This is an absolutely false statement,” he said. “No one on the JRFU has even discussed such a thing.”

It would, however, be interesting to know whether they have discussed what would happen to the Top League fixtures slated for Nov. 8 should Japan advance to the quarterfinals on the same day.

Well, one can dream, can’t one?