Hitoshi Ono was the biggest casualty Monday when Japan head coach Jamie Joseph named his squad for the June internationals against Romania and Ireland.
The 39-year-old lock has played 98 test matches for the Brave Blossoms, but his hopes of joining the elite centurion club have been put on hold as Ono failed to make the 33-man squad.
Having initially said it would be “unprofessional” to comment on players that did not make the squad — other than Naoki Ozawa, Samuela Anise and Shunsuke Nunomaki, who all miss out through injury — Joseph then singled out the veteran.
“I have to give a special mention to Kin-chan,” the former New Zealand and Japan international said. “He was initially in our plans but has been plagued by injury and hasn’t had enough opportunities to warrant selection. But he remains a big part of the Sunwolves and if injuries occur don’t be surprised if he gets a call-up.”
Shota Horie and Harumichi Tatekawa co-captain a squad that contains four new caps in Yusuke Niwai, Shota Emi, Derek Carpenter and William Tupou, and sees the return of Michael Leitch and Hendrik Tui following their self-imposed exiles.
“Leitch is one of the best players in his position currently playing and eligible for Japan,” Joseph said. “The criteria for selection was I wanted the best players available to represent Japan. We have a strong squad and now have two weeks to prepare in the heat in Kyushu before the first test.”
The Brave Blossoms play Romania in Kumamoto on June 10 before taking on Ireland on June 17 and 24 in Shizuoka and Tokyo, respectively, and Joseph said it would be a challenging series of games.
“Romania and Ireland are very different types of teams and couldn’t be more different from Japanese teams,” he said.
“They are big and powerful and in Ireland’s case very experienced. Romania are a set-piece-orientated team that beat Georgia recently. If we take them on on their strengths we will come second. But if we can play a high-tempo fast game in the heat then I am confident we can get some wins.”
Just nine members of the squad are not part of the Sunwolves set-up, though three of the nine — back-row forwards Leitch, Tui and Amanaki Lelei Mafi — are playing Super Rugby for overseas sides.
Props Shintaro Ishihara and Yu Chinen both owe their selection to strong performances in the Asia Rugby Championship, as do backs Yutaka Nagare, Rikiya Matsuda, Akihito Yamada and Ryuji Noguchi, the only student in the side.
“Matsuda and Noguchi have been picked with an eye for the future,” Joseph explained. “They have shown qualities that make me want to invest in their development.”
Kenki Fukuoka, Yamada and Emi provide plenty of pace on the wings, while Fumiaki Tanaka, Yu Tamura and Tatekawa provide over 150 caps’ worth of experience at 9, 10 and 12.
The back row is set to feature three of the form players in Super Rugby in Leitch, Mafi and Tui, but the front five lack any real test-match experience aside from Horie, Keita Inagaki and Shinya.
With memories of the Sunwolves’ poor performance on Saturday against the Cheetahs fresh in the mind, Joseph said the June games would be different.
“Super Rugby is a marathon,” he said. “The Sunwolves have traveled 100,000 km and spent 130 hours in the air. That’s three times more than (Joseph’s former club) the Highlanders and twice as many as most other teams.
“The June games are a sprint. We play three games at home and we are playing in front of our family and friends and I am very motivated and excited.”