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Kirwan announces World Cup squad

Kyodo

Japan coach John Kirwan on Monday unveiled his 30 for next month’s Rugby World Cup, describing them as a “much more complete” team than the one that lost three and drew once four years ago.

Kirwan pulled no surprises for the Sept. 9-Oct. 23 tournament in New Zealand, dropping flanker Tadasuke Nishihara from a list of 31 for Japan’s last two warmups against Italy and the United States.

“I think we’ve improved right across the board,” former All Black Kirwan said, a night after Japan defeated the American Eagles 20-14 in its final tuneup. “This team is much more complete. I think we’re stronger, faster and we understand our strengths and weaknesses much better.”

“It’s very important for Japanese rugby to finish with a great tournament and achieve the goals we set four years ago,” Kirwan said.

Takashi Kikutani will lead the Brave Blossoms onto the pitch as captain in their opener against France on Sept. 10.

Japan, in search of its first World Cup victory since 1991, is in the same group as host New Zealand, Canada and Tonga. At France 2007, Japan picked up its first points since ’91 in a 12-12 draw with Canada.

Thirty-three-year-old wing Hirotoki Onozawa, the most capped on the team with 64, is heading to his third consecutive World Cup. Panasonic Wild Knights and Suntory Sungoliath produced the most players from the Top League with six players each.

“From the day we get back together on the 29th until our first game, we need to make our team even better than what it is right now,” Kikutani said.

“We have to be in the best possible shape we can be in for the France game.”

Added scrum-half Fumiaki Tanaka, “My goal has never been to be picked for the World Cup. The goal is to help the team obtain the results we’ve been targeting all long.”

Kirwan’s side four years ago included seven foreign-born players. This time, the former Italy coach selected 10.

While Kirwan understands the calls for him to pick a squad with fewer foreigners, he does not believe Japan — which has risen to a record 12th in the world rankings over the last four years — is quite at that level yet.

“I understand some people might like an all-Japanese side but at this stage, we need to balance between getting success and making sure that Japanese rugby union is moving forward up the rankings,” he said.

The squad:

Props: Hisateru Hirashima (Kobe Steel Kobelco Steelers), Naoki Kawamata (Panasonic Wild Knights), Kensuke Hatakeyama (Suntory Sungoliath), Nozomu Fujita (Honda Heat)

Hookers: Yusuke Aoki (Suntory), Shota Horie (Panasonic), Hiroki Yuhara (Toshiba Brave Lupus)

Locks: Hitoshi Ono (Toshiba), Toshizumi Kitagawa (Toyota Verblitz), Luke Thompson (Kintetsu Liners), Justin Ives (Panasonic)

Flankers: Takashi Kikutani (Toyota), Michael Leitch (Toshiba), Sione Vatuvei (Panasonic)

No. 8: Ryu Koliniasi Holani (Panasonic), Itaru Taniguchi (Kobe Steel)

Scrum-halfs: Fumiaki Tanaka (Panasonic), Tomoki Yoshida (Toshiba), Atsushi Hiwasa (Suntory)

Stand-offs: James Arlidge (Nottingham), Murray Williams (Toyota Industries Shuttles)

Centers: Yuta Imamura (Kobe Steel), Ryan Nicholas (Suntory), Koji Taira (Suntory), Alisi Tupuailai (Canon Eagles)

Wings: Hirotoki Onozawa (Suntory), Kosuke Endo (Toyota), Takehisa Usuzuki (Toshiba)

Fullback: Shanu Webb (Coca-Cola West Red Sparks)

Utility back: Taihei Ueda (Honda)