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Kirwan to lead Japan against former team

by Jim Armstrong

The Associated Press

Japan coach John Kirwan will get a little help from his former New Zealand teammates as he prepares his side for the upcoming Pacific Nations Cup.

Japan will play the Classic All Blacks on Saturday in a tuneup for next month’s Pacific Nations Cup where it faces teams from Australia, Tonga, Fiji, Samoa and New Zealand Maori.

Kirwan’s team is fresh off winning the Asian 5 Nations tournament on May 18 but the former winger knows things will be a lot tougher in the Pacific Nations Cup.

“You have to play the top tier countries to improve and that’s slowly but surely happening in Japan,” Kirwan said at a press conference Thursday.

Former All Black trio Carl Hayman, Justin Marshall and Ben Blair — now playing in Britain — are among the players who have traveled to Japan for Saturday’s match.

“If we can help to further the advancement of rugby in Japan we are more than happy to come back,” said Marshall. “To grow the game here is the most important thing.”

The Classic All Blacks played Japan twice last summer beating Kirwan’s team by scores of 36-6, 35-26.

Kirwan, who became Japan’s coach in 2001, said rugby needs to develop the game in Asia in order to thrive globally.

“Asia is the future for the growth of the game,” said Kirwan. “Rugby is struggling financially in the southern hemisphere and Japan is the answer. Japan is bidding for the 2015 World Cup so we have big dreams.”

Japan ended a 13-game losing streak at the 2007 Rugby World Cup in France by playing a 12-12 tie with Canada in its final game.

Japan is currently 16th in the International Rugby Board’s world rankings. While a move into the elite top tier may be a long way off, Kirwan says it’s important to beat the teams just ahead in the rankings.

“Our goal now is to beat Tonga, Fiji and Samoa,” said Kirwan. “Playing the Classic All Blacks is part of the process.”

Kirwan played 96 times, including 63 test matches, as an All Black from 1984 until 1994.

He played rugby league for two seasons in the Australia’s National Rugby League for the Auckland Warriors before finishing his playing career with the NEC club in Japan.