The Japan Rugby Football Union will host the second playing of the Super Powers Cup in Tokyo on Thursday at National Stadium with the tournament concluding on Sunday at Chichibunomiya.
For Japan’s new coach Mitsutake Hagimoto the tournament will be a chance for his team to redeem itself following what can only be described as a pathetic showing against South Korea on May 16.
A year after beating its Asian rival 86-3, the “Brave Blossoms” wilted in the rain and were lucky to scrape out a 19-19 draw.
With the JRFU having said it will put in a bid for the 2011 Rugby World Cup, it is imperative that the tournament is a success for the host nation both on and off the field.
Organized by the International Rugby Board, the competition was originally to be played by four of the world’s socioeconomic super powers — Japan, Russia, China and the United States. However, the outbreak of the SARS virus curtailed China’s involvement in the 2003 competition and in the end only three matches were played.
The United States easily accounted for Japan 69-27 in San Francisco, before the Cherry Blossoms produced one of their worst ever displays in losing 43-34 to the Russians in Tokyo. The final was somewhat of a disappointment as the U.S. elected to send an A team to Russia and a 30-21 victory handed the cup to the Europeans.
With China still in the rugby wilderness, Canada has been asked to play in this year’s tournament and following the success of the Churchill Cup in Canada, the IRB arranged for the Super Powers Cup to be hosted by one union.
The Japanese, who hosted the last playing of the Pacific Rim in 2001, were eventually persuaded — though they did need some assurances that they would not lose money as a result of playing host.
The first round sees Japan take on Russia, while the two North American countries will battle it out for a place in the final.
With Russia excluded from the 2003 Rugby World Cup on the grounds of fielding ineligible players, and the other three nations failing to reach the last eight, the tournament is seen by all four teams as the first step toward building toward the 2007 World Cup.
Japan produced some of its best ever rugby in Australia — even though it was unable to add to its one win in RWC history — and the newly formed Top League has raised the standard of domestic rugby, so to the outsider it seemed to be in a strong position — at least it did before the Korean debacle.
However, the delay in appointing a replacement to Shogo Mukai — the result of the JRFU’s attempts to get Eddie Jones to return to Japan — meant that Hagimoto was only appointed in March, and only then on a one-year contract, and the team only had a handful of sessions together before taking on a highly motivated South Korean outfit.
Although technically in charge of both the national team and A squad, Hagimoto left the A team in the hands of former national team hooker Masahiro Kunda when it toured New Zealand recently, and the two new coaches must have wondered exactly what they had taken on as the 99-12 loss to the New Zealand Universities once again highlighted the lack of depth in Japan in certain key positions.
Hagimoto’s squad is very different from the team that played in Australia and the match against South Korea — a game that was part of the long and convoluted qualifying process for the Asian World Cup representative — gave both Hagimoto and his players a rude reminder that being a big fish in Japan means nothing in terms of international rugby.
The Canadians also have a new coach in Ric Suggitt, while Tom Billups will have to contend with a number of experienced players retiring from international service for the Eagles, yet both countries should still be too good for the Russians, whose victory last year was due more to the incompetence of their opposition than their own skill and pace.
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