MIYAZAKI - The Brave Blossoms fly to North America on Sunday for the Pacific Nations Cup, knowing there are still Rugby World Cup places on the line.
With just over 70 days to go before Japan takes on South Africa in Brighton, England, head coach Eddie Jones told Kyodo News there are still a handful of spots up for grabs.
“In reality, our top 20 players are easily decided,” he said Thursday in Miyazaki, where the team has been in camp pretty much full time since the beginning of April. “It’s the (other 11 spots) that there is a lot of competition for.”
Jones must name his 31-man squad for the World Cup by Aug. 31 and admitted things had gotten more difficult in terms of selecting the players who are likely to be on the fringes of the best XV the longer the team was in camp.
“At the start of the year I would have said it was pretty straight forward. But now we’ve got guys who have come through and really put their hand up to say they can make it. Someone like (Ryohei) Yamanaka wasn’t even in the original squad, but now he is in the final 37 so that shows how well he has done.
“(Karne) Hesketh was a borderline player but was our best player in the Asian Championship. So guys like that who weren’t in my squad at the start of the year have put their hands up.”
Jones said the upcoming games in North America were a chance for others to make a claim, though they would be doing so playing a style of rugby far removed from what they will play at the World Cup.
“There’s no point us playing our hand and showing the other teams what we can do,” Jones said, referring to the fact that the Brave Blossoms are pooled at the World Cup with two of the sides in the PNC.
Japan plays the United States on July 24 and could face Samoa in the final or one of the positional playoff games, and Jones said he would be playing poker and not showing his hand — as getting the right results at the World Cup was far more important than winning the PNC.
“Against America we are not going to show anything,” he said. “I am treating that like 80 minutes of training. We’ve beaten them twice over the last two years so we know how to play them. Anything we do is to their advantage not our advantage.”
Jones said that he would think about how to take on Samoa if the two sides were to meet on the final day of the six-team tournament, but admitted he would probably do the same as “there is nothing for us to gain.”
Soccer’s Women’s World Cup final had, Jones said, shown how important it was to keep things secret so you could tactically upset the opposition early on.
“America scored two early goals by keeping the ball on the ground, knowing the Japan side had spent all week training to combat the aerial threat,” he said. “It shows that if you can do something tactically clever early on that makes the opposition re-think, it puts you in a good position.”
While the majority of the squad leave Japan on Sunday, a number of players will remain behind in Miyazaki to work on their fitness.
“The guys who were down playing Super Rugby need to get up to the fitness levels the rest of the side are at,” Jones said, adding that the likes of Michael Leitch, Keita Inagaki and Hendrik Tui would likely be considered for selection for Japan’s third game against Fiji on July 29 in Toronto.
Japan opens its PNC campaign against Canada in San Jose, California, on July 18, with the final and positional playoffs slated for Burnaby, Canada, on Aug. 3.