The Japan rugby team faces one of the hardest tasks in sport Saturday when it takes on the world champion All Blacks at the Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground.
In 110 years, the New Zealand national team has played 508 tests and been victorious in 386 for a winning percentage of 75.98, making it arguably the most successful team in the history of sport.
In that time, just six sides — Australia, England, France, South Africa, Wales and the British and Irish Lions — have defeated the men in black.
Yet despite that, the Brave Blossoms go into the game believing they can upset the odds and come away with a win for which the word miracle could be viewed as an understatement.
“We are ready for the fight and of course we have an image that we can win,” Japan vice captain and fullback Ayumu Goromaru said following Friday’s captain’s run. “Not just Japan but the eyes of the world will be on us if we win and we will go out from the start and do our best to get a victory.”
It was a view shared by lock Shoji Ito.
“Of course it is a privilege to play the best team in the world, but we know what we need to do, have confidence and have prepared to win the game though we know it will need a lot of hard work,” the 32-year-old said on the eve of the biggest test match the Brave Blossoms have played on home soil.
June’s win over an albeit depleted Wales side showed that Eddie Jones’ Japan Way can be successful at the highest level and not even the hospitalization of the head coach seems to have dented the team’s new-found sense of self-belief.
“We are taking Eddie not being here as a positive,” explained Ito. “We want him to see how we have improved without him.”
But taking on a Wales side devoid of 15 Lions players down in Australia, and taking on an All Blacks side that some are saying has the potential to be the best ever, is a completely different kettle of fish.
The Kiwis may be missing nine senior players as they prepare for next week’s test in France, but as one of the multiple journalists who flew up from the Land of the Long White Cloud pointed out, “I have never known an All Blacks side to have so much strength in depth.”
It was a point not lost on Goromaru.
“If we play like normal then we will lose,” said Japan’s place kicker. “Eddie wants us to play an attacking game and we need to play rugby that only Japan can play. We are confident we can win and have prepared well. If you asked 100 people back in June how many thought we would beat Wales, 100 would have said no. We have confidence from that game and have belief in the possibility we can win tomorrow.”
The last time the two sides played was at the 2011 Rugby World Cup, when New Zealand ran out 83-7 winners.
The Brave Blossoms’ try scorer that day was Hirotoki Onozawa, and although Japan’s most capped player with 81 tests will miss Saturday’s game, having only just returned from injury, he still had an important role to play.
Onozawa handed out the match-day jerseys to the 23 men chosen by interim coach Scott Wisemantel and had a few words of advice for the squad.
“I could tell he really wanted to play,” said Goromaru. “He reminded us we hadn’t played well against New Zealand at the last World Cup and told us how important tomorrow is.”
McCaw glad to be back
All Blacks captain Richie McCaw said he is looking forward to Saturday’s test with Japan and hopefully putting aside his recent spate of injuries.
“I’m pretty excited about playing. It’s been a while,” he said following New Zealand’s final training run ahead of the game at the Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground.
McCaw, who will line up in the unfamiliar position of No. 8, and flyhalf Dan Carter have both been included in the starting XV as coach Steve Hansen looks to give the veteran pair some much-needed playing time ahead of the European leg of the tour that sees the All Blacks take on France, England and Ireland.
“Speaking on behalf of Dan Carter, it will be good to get on the field and get some footy under our belts,” said McCaw, who will be winning his 121st cap.
McCaw leads a relatively inexperienced side, but he said the new faces have settled in well and he is expecting them to produce a good performance.
“We can’t afford, just because we’ve got a few changes, to let our standards drop. It’s key we have a performance that’s as good as, if not better, than where we’ve been,” he said.
That previous performance resulted in a 41-33 win over Australia two weeks ago, though this is a very different New Zealand side with Hansen making 14 changes.
“When you’ve got four guys playing their first game and a few who haven’t had a crack for a while, there’s some good excitement,” McCaw said.
Though he warned his side to not take the hosts lightly. “It’s a different challenge playing Japan. I’m sure the pace of the game will be up but we’ve got to be careful we don’t get frantic.”