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The 2007 Rugby World Cup might only be months away, but behind the scenes tier-two nations are already eyeing the quarterfinals four years from now.

The first group of Japan’s high-performance unit of six handpicked players is returning later this month from its total immersion course at Waikato and New South Wales rugby academies in Hamilton, New Zealand and Sydney.

One of them, Korean-born scrum half Kim Chulwon, however, took an early flight last Monday to join the national side’s training camp in Nakashibetsu, Hokkaido, which started on Saturday. The Osaka Sports University graduate is an unexpected addition to the team, but his trainers at the New South Wales Academy are far from surprised.

“When Japan’s high performance manager, Tony Philp, asked for my assessment on Kim, I highly recommended him for the national team,” said New South Wales Rugby League Academy general manager Tony D’Arcy.

“His ball-handling skills improved much during the two months he spent with our academy training alongside members of the Waratahs,” added development manager Joe Barakat. “He is a very quick, cheeky half back. He performed well at (the) grade-one local club level, he scored plenty of tries.”

The program Kim participated in with five other elite young players is part of the International Rugby Board’s strategic development initiative targeting tier-two rugby countries. Named ATQ (or Advance to the Quarterfinals), the program funds the local unions of Japan, Tonga, Fiji, Samoa, Canada, Romania and the United States with £18.6 million over a three-year period. The IRB also appointed high performance managers to help design and implement projects that best fit each country’s rugby culture and environment.

“Our focus is to educate Japanese players to become national players by the World Cup in 2011, and hopefully, as the name suggests, advance to the quarterfinals,” said Philp. “To achieve this we set up a rugby academy and a high performance unit. Most tier-one countries had such academies in the last seven to 10 years. Now Japan is moving in that direction. “

Launched this year, the academy includes four Japan-based intensive training camps in the offseason, targeting to include 30 regular players from the 18-to-23 age group, while the less intensive pre-academy group is for high school students under 18. The-high performance unit sends top end players from university and top-league levels to Waikato and New South Wales, which won the Japanese bid last year over the Canterbury and Queensland academies, for four to six months.

This year, locks Manabu Suzuki, Tomoaki Taniguchi and Shinya Makabe were in Waikato learning lineout skills from current Japan side forwards coach Chris Gibbes. Prop Kohei Maeda, flyhalf Hiroyuki Sakamoto and Kimtrained in Sydney. Both programs included academy training, playing for local clubs and intensive English courses.

The players were chosen by coaching director Masahiro Kunda, with the help of local selectors. As long as the player has spent three years with a Japanese team, nationality doesn’t play a role in the selection.

“I improved a great deal at the academy,” said Kim before his departure. “It is a different rugby style, Rugby is part of the way of life in Australia. I learned how to enjoy the game more and be creative on the field. The experience will serve me well at the coming test matches. “

Already producing a player for the national side, the program seems to be a quick success in Japan. Nonetheless, the ATQ develops differently in each tier-two country, depending on local requirements.

“In Fiji, we adapted the program to the local rugby culture,” said Fiji’s high performance manager Peter Murphy, a former Olympic-level rower with years of experience in high-performance initiatives for the Australian Olympic Committee.

“We primarily invest in the infrastructure and sports science, but we also focus on referee and coach training programs. Already sponsoring six IRB level-three coaches this year, I can happily say that the standard is coming, there is no doubt.”

Communication between the IRB appointed managers of each country is coordinated by Australia-based IRB High Performance consultant Daniel Collins. However, the flow of information has its limits.

“We have similar programs, but we are at competition,” said Murphy. “(The year) 2011 will not only be a Rugby World Cup, but also the test of the high-performance units. It will be the final test of our work — which of us actually makes it to the quarterfinals. “

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