Kyoto – Japan rugby head coach Jamie Joseph is keen to get a first-hand look at his 2019 Rugby World Cup rivals when the Brave Blossoms play Ireland in two test matches in June.
But the New Zealander also warned against reading too much into his team’s chances after Wednesday’s group-stage draw in Kyoto, with the tournament still two and a half years away.
“My impression of all the pools is that they’re incredibly strong, especially if you’re ranked 11th in the world,” said Joseph, after Japan was paired with Ireland, Scotland, a European qualifier and the winner of the qualifying playoff in the draw at Kyoto State Guest House.
“I’m just really neutral about where we are because it’s still two years away. I’ve only been in the job eight months and we’ve got a long way to go. So has everybody else, and I’m sure it’s going to change a half-dozen times if not more before we get to the starting post.”
Japan has never beaten Scotland or Ireland but has the chance to straighten the record when the Irish visit Japan for two test matches in June. Japan plays Ireland in Shizuoka on June 17 and again at Tokyo’s Ajinomoto Stadium — the venue for the World Cup’s opening game — on June 24.
Japan also plays Romania — the favorite to fill the European qualifying slot — in Kumamoto on June 10, and Joseph believes the experience will benefit his team.
“For the test matches in June, we’ll be picking our best side,” he said. “We’ve got a few injuries at the moment with the Sunwolves, but hopefully those guys will be OK by the time we get there.
“I guess now that we know that Romania have got a good chance of being in our pool at the World Cup, and obviously Ireland being the stronger team and having an opportunity to play them in June, it’s going to give us some insight into exactly how they play. I don’t think any of our players have any experience of playing against Ireland, so with that in mind it’s going to be good for both teams.”
Scotland visited Japan for two test matches in June last year, and came away with two wins after a 26-13 result in Toyota, Aichi Pref., and a 21-16 victory in Tokyo.
Ireland manager Joe Schmidt is hoping his team can have a similarly productive experience when it arrives in Japan next month.
“I think June is going to be very tough for us,” said Schmidt, who has led Ireland to wins over New Zealand and England in the last six months. “I think this draw today will spark a real interest because people will want an entree of what will be a main meal in two-and-a-bit years’ time.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for Jamie Joseph. He’s a scary man. He will bring a real energy to the group and some of his coaching staff I know as well will be very effective in progressing the team further.”
Japan has lost twice to Ireland and three times to Scotland at the World Cup, with the latest defeat to Scotland coming at the 2015 tournament in England.
That loss effectively ended Japan’s chance of reaching the quarterfinals despite pulling off an historic 34-32 win over South Africa in its previous match, and hooker Shota Horie is determined to go one step further on home soil.
“It was going to be tough whoever we got in our group, but we have a clear goal and that is a good thing,” said Horie. “We have three European teams in our group so they will be very strong in the scrum and in the lineout. They have a lot of big players, especially the forwards, and the key is how we cope with them.
“We played Scotland last year but when it comes to the World Cup, they will be a different team. We’re playing Ireland in June and that’s a good motivation to learn from that and give our all in those games.”
Joseph, who took charge last September, has admitted to growing tired of being asked about Japan’s 2015 heroics and urged his players to write a new chapter in the team’s history in 2019.
“What we didn’t have in England was 139 million people supporting us, and I think that’s our biggest asset going in,” he said. “There’s been some conjecture, is that going to put a lot of pressure on the players? Well it will if we allow that.
“But if we get out there and accept that we’re playing for our home country and it’s a home World Cup and really enjoy that experience, I think that will really help us and be motivational for the boys.”