SEOUL — Japan maintained its proud record of having appeared at every Rugby World Cup finals when it beat South Korea 55-17 at Tondaemun Stadium, Seoul on Sunday to ensure it finished top of the Asian qualifying group.

The victory means that Japan (which still has one game to play against Taiwan on July 21) will line up alongside France, Scotland, Fiji and a team from the repecharge tournament (most likely Uruguay) when the World Cup begins in Australia in October 2003.

“I am very happy that I will be able to play in the World Cup,” said Japan captain Takuro Miuchi. “However, there is still much to do if we are to close the gap on the major sides.”

Coach Shogo Mukai said that “our aim is to win some games at the World Cup,” but like Miuchi he is well aware that the hard work begins now if Japan is to make an impression.

“We need to make sure we score whenever the opportunity arises,” Mukai added. “There were some mistakes today but I know we can get better.”

Fresh off its record-breaking exploits last week when it defeated Taiwan 155-3, the game was always going to be a difficult one for the Japanese.

The Koreans (who had been defeated 90-24 in Tokyo) were looking to restore some national pride and send off retiring captain Kang Dong Ho in style. However, the torrential rain that plagued Seoul ensured that the crowd (a large number of whom were sporting the red and white of the visitors) were unable to witness a classic example of running rugby.

“The rain and the pressure from the Koreans meant that we were unable to reproduce the form of last week,” said Mukai. The Japanese coach was perhaps being a little diplomatic.

“The Koreans infringed a lot at the breakdown,” said Australian referee Peter Marshall. “Obviously the weather didn’t help but it meant the Japanese were often unable to get the quick ball they wanted.”

Marshall went on to say that the Japanese team has improved considerably in the past few years and was more than capable of producing an upset at the World Cup. Japan flyhalf Andy Miller, whom Marshall described as “a real steadying influence” agreed.

“The conditions weren’t great and we were often getting slow ball but by the end we showed what we could do when we put two or three phases together.”

Daisuke Ohata, who scored eight tries against Taiwan, took only four minutes to carry on where he left off last week. When Luatangi Vatuvai rumbled over five minutes later it seemed that Japan was intent on another big win, but the Koreans showed a lot of spirit in fighting back to level the scores at 12-12 through tries by Choi Young Jin and Park Chang Min.

Japan assistant coach Gary Wallace later admitted that the Japanese need to work on their mental concentration as they have a tendency to switch off for short periods. However the Australian can be well pleased with the fitness and strength of his team.

As the rain and heavy ground conditions took its toll on the players, Japan sealed the game with four tries in a ten-minute spell either side of halftime. Miller and Yukio Motoki showed all their strength and experience as they broke through a number of tackles before Motoki (winning his 56th cap) touched down. Toru Kurihara added the conversion and then showed his turn of pace when collecting a Korean turnover and racing over for a try from 60 meters out that ensured Japan went into the break 24-12 up.

Within six minutes of the restart Japan had added two more tries through Hirotoki Onozawa and Miuchi and with Japan ahead 36-12 the contest was as good as finished.

To their credit the South Koreans kept fighting back though at times the game did get a little niggly. Lee Jin Wook scored following a clever kick ahead by Choi before Japan rounded the game off in style.

Hideki Namba scored Japan’s seventh try following good work by forwards Yuya Saito, Takeomi Ito and Koichi Kubo before Adam Parker scored what Wallace described as being the try of the game. From the restart Ito made a powerful burst before linking with Ryohei Miki. The winger fed the ball to Kubo who in turn fed it on to a Parker who galloped over for the try.

“Its great being able to make an impact off the bench,” said the New Zealand born lock. “Obviously we need to go up a level but the World Cup is a year off and if we keep improving I think we can do well.”

Miki scored Japan’s ninth and final try after good recycling by the forwards and quick hands by the backs. With Miller adding the extra two points Japan walked off a saturated field a clear winner.

Korean coach An Deog Gyun praised the Japanese team saying, “they are a very strong team and that is reflective of the hard work they have put in.”

“We were not able to dominate today,” he added. “In the past Korean coaches have talked about the foreigners in the Japanese team but today it did not matter. The Japanese players have got much better.”

South Korea goes into the repecharge where it will probably play Tonga. The Japanese players will return to their company sides knowing that from now on things can only get harder.

“We need to work on our players blowing through at rucks,” said New Zealand born flanker Dean Anglesey. “France may be in a different class but Scotland and Fiji are beatable.”

For the first time in its long history Japan has every right to feel optimistic about the future.

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