Japan captain Michael Leitch fears that Japanese rugby is in danger of squandering the momentum it has built up in recent years following a harrowing week for the sport.
But Leitch also believes that the Brave Blossoms can turn negative headlines surrounding the future of coach Eddie Jones, the hosting of the 2019 World Cup and Japan’s ability to field a Super Rugby franchise to their advantage at next month’s World Cup.
Japan beat Uruguay 40-0 on Saturday in its final home warmup before the Sept. 18-Oct. 31 World Cup in England, bringing a positive end to a week that began with Jones announcing that he will step down at the end of the tournament.
The timing of the announcement brought criticism from Yamaha Jubilo coach Katsuyuki Kiyomiya and sparked fresh doubts that Japan’s new Super Rugby franchise — of which Jones had been appointed director of rugby — will be unable to take its place in next year’s competition.
A bad week then got worse when Rugby World Cup organizers demanded that 2019 host Japan set out a “revised road map” for the competition in the wake of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision to scrap the design for the new National Stadium, which was due to be the tournament’s showpiece venue but will now not be completed in time.
Leitch conceded that the events of the past week have left a dark cloud over Japanese rugby, but denied that the national team will be affected.
“It is disappointing how things have turned out,” Leitch told The Japan Times after Saturday’s game. “There’s a real chance to really change Japanese rugby. We’ve put in all this hard work for four years, we’ve really built up the strength of Japanese rugby, and for it to all come undone next year would be really disappointing. But it’s not our decision.
“It probably makes the team stronger if anything, because in reality it’s up to the players to make a difference. The only thing that can make a difference as players in Japan is if we win at the World Cup. It doesn’t increase the pressure. It makes you work harder.”
Leitch rejected Kiyomiya’s suggestion that Jones had disrupted World Cup preparations by announcing his departure before the tournament, and hooker Shota Horie also played down the significance.
“It has no effect whatsoever,” said Horie, who played for Melbourne Rebels in Super Rugby from 2013-14. “Particularly for me, with experience of Super Rugby where coaches can leave midseason. We’re professionals, and if the Japan coach is leaving then we have to get on with it. We trust and believe in Eddie, and now we have to go to the World Cup and get results.
“Captain Leitch got us together and told us to show everyone how much we’ve improved and to win our last game at home before we go to the World Cup. People in the media have been asking if the Japan team is OK, so it was important to show people that we are all in it together.”
Jones himself joked that the players were “happy” because “they know that they won’t have to put up with another four years of training hard.”
But the coach was more concerned with fine-tuning his team as he prepares to announce his final 31-man squad on Monday, and knows that time is running out with only one more warmup game against Georgia to go before the World Cup begins for real against South Africa on Sept. 19.
“It’s been a long preparation and we’ve needed it,” said Jones. “At various times we’ve had mental and physical fatigue. Last week we played at about 70 percent capacity. This week was something around 80 percent, next week we’ll play at about 90 percent and at the World Cup we’ll play at 100 percent.
“Each week is programmed so that the players will get a little bit better physically. Their sense of the World Cup coming is there.”
Six different players scored tries against Uruguay at Prince Chichibu Memorial Ground, with fullback Ayumu Goromaru also landing five of his six conversion attempts.
“In recent games, when the forwards have been good the backs have been bad, and when the forwards have been bad the backs have been good,” said Goromaru, who also scored Japan’s opening try. “Today both were good and the team is getting better.
“The tempo was good and everyone was up for the game. It was our last home game. A lot of people have supported us over the past four years, and it meant something to produce this result.”
Uruguay is also preparing for the World Cup, but captain Santiago Vilaseca knows his team will have to play better to avoid a thrashing in a daunting group including host England, Australia, Wales and Fiji.
“We made a lot of mistakes and Japan detected those mistakes and took advantage of them,” said Vilaseca. “The team is very disappointed with our performance. We know that we are the ones who have to improve so that we don’t have more games like this one.”
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