The Brave Blossoms are hoping the end of one sporting era will also mark the start of another as they look to send the National Stadium off in style on Sunday.
A victory for Japan over Hong Kong at the iconic stadium built for the 1964 Olympics would hand Eddie Jones’ team their seventh straight Asian 5 Nations title, but more importantly would see them qualify for their eighth-straight Rugby World Cup, a tournament Japan will host in five years time.
“It’s a chance to create new Japanese sporting history, and for the evolution of the team it’s another step forward,” Jones said Saturday after his team’s final training session.
Sunday’s game is the last major sporting event at the stadium before it is demolished to make way for a new arena that will be used at Rugby World Cup 2019 and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and Jones said he hoped the team could sign off in style.
“I was only 4 back in 1964 but I do remember the New Zealander Peter Snell, who won the 800 and 1,500 meters. I want our team to do plenty of running tomorrow.”
When naming his team a day earlier, Jones had talked about the thrill of the occasion.
“To play in the last event here is a fantastic honor for the team and a fantastic honor for rugby. I hope we can play the type of game that people will talk about and remember as the last ever game at National Stadium.”
Aside from Fumiaki Tanaka, who is still in New Zealand with the Highlanders, Kenki Fukuoka, who is recovering from injury and Michael Broadhurst and Kosei Ono, who are both missing for personal reasons, this is the strongest side Jones could have picked.
“There are 440 caps in the team so it is probably the most experienced side we have put out in the last three years.”
Eighty of those appearances belong to Hitoshi Ono, who will join Hirotoki Onozawa as the most capped player in Japan test-match history when he takes to the field.
“Before the last three years the winning percentage of the team was 41 percent. It’s now 65 percent. But that means in the bulk of his tests Kin-chan was beaten and was in a scrum that was going backwards. I can’t tell you how important he is to the team. His contribution is enormous. They should build a statue of him here.”
Jones will be hoping Ono and the forwards dominate the set and pound the visitors into submission before Japan’s dangerous backs are unleashed.
“I am expecting Male Sa’u to play well and Harumichi Tatekawa will definitely be better than he was last week in Korea,” Jones said of Japan’s two Super Rugby centers.
Sa’u admitted last week that he and Tatekawa had been a little off the pace following their return from the Rebels and Brumbies, respectively.
“We needed to adjust our depth,” he said. “Hong Kong will bring a physical game but if we can win that we can then use our speed and run around them.”
The visitors come into the game realizing they are up against it, but hoping the unexpected can happen.
“On form, Japan are the outright favorites. So in all likelihood we will be playing Uruguay (in the repechage) on Aug. 2,” said Hong Kong manager Dai Rees. “We have just got to throw caution to the wind and minimize our mistakes. We need to slow down the Japan ball and have to be still in the game after 30 minutes. We have the athletes to exploit their weaknesses. But whether they can do it, we will know tomorrow at 6 p.m.”