Japan coach Jamie Joseph named his first national squad of 2017 Monday as the Brave Blossoms get set to take on South Korea and Hong Kong in the Asia Rugby Championship.
Uncapped scrumhalf Yutaka Nagare will lead the 37-man squad, which contains 16 debutant players.
“It’s a big squad because some of the players are currently injured or reconditioning after a big workload, with the Sunwolves (season) starting straight after the Top League,” Joseph said.
Nagare, who captained Suntory to the league and cup double in 2016-17, leads a group that contains non-traveling members of the Sunwolves, the Junior Japan side that came second in the recent World Rugby Pacific Challenge and players who impressed during the recent Top League season.
“We want to continue the development of Japanese rugby,” said Joseph. “The results so far speak for themselves. We had one win in the November tests and the Sunwolves have had one so it suggests we haven’t quite got the right players yet.
“With the Sunwolves, the Pacific Challenge and the ARC, we can observe three teams and pick the best players for the June tests (against Romania and Ireland) when we will have one eye on the now and one eye on preparing for 2019.”
Nagare will have plenty of support from players with test-match experience with Keisuke Uchida — who led Japan in last year’s ARC — one of the other scrumhalves named.
Flying wing Akihito Yamada is also included, having turned down the chance to play for the Sunwolves, as are locks Kotaro Yatabe and Kazuhiko Usami.
Hooker Kosuke Horikoshi, who led Junior Japan in the Pacific tournament, is one of five students included in the squad, which also includes one of Japan’s brightest hopes in flyhalf Takuya Yamasawa.
“He shows good potential, but like all our first fives the challenge will be (for him) to lead a team behind and in front of experienced players and be confident to control a game,” Joseph said of the 22-year-old, who recently spent time training with the Highlanders’ Super Rugby squad in New Zealand.
Joseph went on to say that many of the players had yet to be tested at this level.
But when reminded that Japan had strolled to victory in last year’s ARC, scoring 242 points and conceding just 23 in the four games, Joseph pointed out that he wants the team to perform to expectations set by the coaching staff, not to the level of the competition.
“The standard we set ourselves and the type and brand of rugby we play. I am by far a tougher judge than the results against (South) Korea and Hong Kong. It’s about how they perform and play within the team.”
Shota Emi — one of the Sunwolves’ standout players this year — is included in the squad even though he has a broken rib and will be out for another three to four weeks.
“We feel the best way for him to return is to be with the national team and maybe play the last game of the ARC with a vision to returning to Super Rugby,” Joseph said.
The Brave Blossoms open their ARC campaign in Incheon, South Korea, on April 22 before returning home to play the South Koreans and Hong Kong in Tokyo on April 29 and May 6, respectively. They wrap up the Asian tournament in Hong Kong on May 13.
The Brave Blossoms then host Romania on June 10 and Ireland on June 17 and 24 during the Super Rugby break with Michael Leitch (Chiefs), Amanaki Lelei Mafi (Rebels) and Hendrik Tui (Reds) possibly joining the mix.
“They have all made themselves available,” Joseph said, unlike Ayumu Goromaru, “who I haven’t heard from.”
Forwards — Kohei Asahori, Shintaro Ishihara, Shogo Miura, Atsushi Sakate, Takeshi Hino, Kosuke Horikoshi, Genki Sudo, Yu Chinen, Takayuki Watanabe, Samuela Anise, Kazuhiko Usami, Yuya Odo, Naohiro Kotaki, Kotaro Yatabe, Yoshiya Hosoda, Malgene Ilaua, Naoki Ozawa, Shokei Kin, Shuhei Matsuhashi, Yoshitaka Tokunaga, Daiki Yanagawa
Backs — Keisuke Uchida, Kaito Shigeno, Yutaka Nagare, Jumpei Ogura, Takuya Yamasawa, Ryota Nakamura, Rikiya Matsuda, Kanta Shikao, Ryohei Yamanaka, Amanaki Lotoahea, Chikara Ito, Akihito Yamada, Shota Emi, Seiya Ozaki, Shinya Morita, Ryuji Noguchi