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It’s been a busy seven days for the Japan Rugby Football Union.

On July 6 the national team played its last game before the 2003 Rugby World Cup; on July 8 a delegation from the International Rugby Board arrived for a two-day trip to gauge Japan’s ability to host the seventh RWC in 2011; and on July 9 the 30-man squad for this year’s tournament was named.

News photoYuya Saito, seen here playing against England A on July 6, will be hoping to keep both
hands on the ball in Australia when Japan competes in the fifth Rugby World Cup. Japan
goes to Townsville knowing that it needs to improve on its record of just one win in 12
games if it is to succeed in its bid to host the tournament in 2011.

Whereas nearly every other major country taking part in the World Cup has scheduled warmup games through to the first week in September, Japan has decided that it has had enough games and that four training camps will be sufficient.

“Before the last World Cup we played games against Hong Kong and Spain, but I am not sure whether it was good or bad,” said team manager Hiroaki Shukuzawa.

“We decided it would be better to improve through practice the weaknesses that we identified in the games we played this season,” he continued.

Fair enough, and after all Shukuzawa is the only man to have coached Japan to a win in a World Cup tournament (52-8 over Zimbabwe in 1991), but as one player in the squad told me:

“We are still lacking the killer instinct. Even in training the last pass is still not going to hand. The boys need to be more confident.”

And what better way to gain confidence than to continue where they left off against England, when Japan had a number of opportunities to score and did what few other countries in the world have achieved — score against England through a rolling maul.

Having started the season so badly (how could one forget the dire performance against Russia) the team has come on in leaps and bounds. Surely it would be better to keep that momentum going rather than interrupting it.

The problem lies in the fact that the players are needed by their clubs as they build toward the Sept. 14 start of the Top League. Which begs the question — Why on earth was that date chosen? Two weeks of action and then the new league is put on hold for six seeks. Surely it would have been better to have started the new professional league the week after the World Cup final when interest in the sport is at a high.

The squad announced on Wednesday contained a few surprises.

Veteran scrumhalf Wataru Murata was omitted as was Toshiba lock Luatangi Vatuvei, while two uncapped players were chosen in Takashi Tsuji and Junichi Hojyo.

Tsuji was in fine form last season as NEC won the national championship and his vision and all-round game probably won him the nod over Murata.

Hojyo, meanwhile, comes in on the wing (as backup to Daisuke Ohata) as the selectors seem confused as to the best makeup of the back three. Toru Kurihara and Hirotoki Onozawa have both been named as right wings, while a fourth Suntory player, Takashi Yoshida, has been named at fullback.

With Kurihara (tackling) and Onozawa (kicking) both showing defensive frailties this season, it may well be veteran Tsutomu Matsuda who starts at fullback when Japan takes the field for its opening game against Scotland on Oct. 12.

Keiji Hirose’s emergence from the international wilderness was confirmed as “Super Boots” made the squad at flyhalf and there are three New Zealanders in the backline — flyhalf Andy Miller and centers Reuben Parkinson and George Konia — though the latter two may struggle for playing time with Yukio Motoki back to full fitness and Hideki Namba seemingly doing no wrong in the eyes of coach Shogo Mukai.

Vatuvei’s non-inclusion was the only real shock in the forwards, injury and fitness problems hindering the Tongan-born lock, who was one of the few Japan players, along with Toshiba teammate Adam Parker (who will be on the plane to Townsville) to constantly get over the gain line in the first few internationals of the year.

Former schoolboy sumo star Ryo Yamamura (the star of the JSky Sport rugby commercial) is included at prop, while Masaaki Sakata can probably think himself a shade fortunate that he got the nod ahead of Toshiba hooker Hiroki Matsuo.

One problem for the selectors, however, will be the makeup of the back row.

Takeomi Ito was, along with Parker, outstanding against both Australia A and England A (who knows how good a player he would have been if he had been able to play his whole career at openside) but the Kobe Steel veteran may be forced to warm the bench if Mukai insists on playing Yuya Saito (who was guilty of far too many turnovers against the English) alongside captain Takuro Miuchi and vice-captain Naoya Okubo.

At 21 years old, Yamamura is the only member of the squad who could still be around should the 2011 Rugby World Cup come to Japan.

With over 4 billion people in over 150 countries expected to watch this year’s event, the Rugby World Cup is now considered to be the third biggest sporting event in the world behind the Olympics and the soccer World Cup. It would therefore be quite a coup if Japan were able to win the rights to host it — though it faces stiff competition from Argentina and the United States.

However, the signs look promising.

“I’d say that Japan is well-placed, has a good rugby tradition, strong economy and ability to organize a major event as we saw with the FIFA World Cup,” said IRB CEO Mike Miller, who said that the decision would be made in 2005.

While it is true that numbers have not been great at recent rugby internationals in Japan, the soccer World Cup showed that the Japanese are drawn to big events and their willingness to adopt other teams as their own ensured that the stadiums were always full — providing the tickets were available!!

Hosting the World Cup would give the game a great boost, not just in Japan but in the whole of Asia.

The one worry is that Japan would not be worthy of a place in the competition — Argentina for example is presently ranked seventh in the world and many people’s favorite to cause a major shock at this year’s tournament.

The 30 players chosen to represent the “Cherry Blossoms” in Australia, therefore, have a great deal resting on their shoulders.

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