As rehearsals go for Rugby World Cup 2019, Japan’s three-test series in June and the nation’s performance, both on and off the field, drew mixed reviews.
On the playing front, the win over Romania and two defeats to Ireland left coach Jamie Joseph in no doubt that the Brave Blossoms have much to work on if, as hosts in two year’s time, they are to repeat their heroics of RWC 2015.
“Against Romania you saw glimpses of the type of rugby we want to play,” he said. “(But the Ireland games) highlight the gap between Tier 1 teams and where we are now and what we are working towards.”
The stadiums also showed glimpses of the good and bad, with the superb atmosphere ruined somewhat by some basic necessities not provided to the level expected of a World Cup.
Back in April, Joseph admitted his first few games in charge had been tough and that perhaps he had not chosen the right players. While he will now have a better idea of some of the players that will form the basis of his squad for the next few years, question marks still exist in a number of key positions.
In the backs, Tokai University student Ryuji Noguchi had an outstanding series and will surely only get better once he rids himself of the shackles of collegiate rugby.
Akihito Yamada, Kenki Fukuoka and Kotaro Matsushima also showed good form and demonstrated — as they did in England two years ago — that they can trouble any defense in the world.
The problem is, who will get them the ball?
Injury and fatigue affected some key inside backs while Japan struggled in a number of positions in the pack.
The year-round rugby played by most of the squad — many of whom were on a flight to South Africa just hours after the final whistle last Saturday ahead of this week’s Sunwolves’ game against the Lions — is taking a huge toll.
And it was surely no coincidence that the two forwards to shine in June were non-Sunwolves: Michael Leitch and Luke Thompson — though an honorable mention should be given to Uwe Helu, who showed a lot of promise at lock.
Leitch didn’t play in any test matches in 2016, while Thompson was called out of an 18-month international retirement to help out with the Brave Blossoms’ injury crisis.
Both displayed the “ticker” that Joseph said was missing at times from certain other players, and while Thompson has said it was a one-off appearance, there are many who are hoping Joseph can persuade him otherwise.
Japan’s game plan and its reliance on kicking also came under fire as players were often unable to carry out its three requisites: — timely accurate kicks, good organized chases, and good first-time tackles.
Next up for Joseph and his crew are the autumn tests, and Joseph will be hoping his players stay injury-free in the Top League, which starts just five weeks after Super Rugby ends.
At least attack coach Tony Brown will be in Japan on a full-time basis and the one-on-one coaching he will provide should lead to a better understanding of how Joseph wants the team to play.
The games against the World XV in Fukuoka and Australia in Yokohama, before the team heads to Europe, will also be a chance for the Japan Rugby Football Union and the organizing committee for the World Cup to show they too have learned from mistakes made in June.
The problem is that, according to a number of sources, the two parties are not exactly on talking terms, as was evident the last few weeks.
At Kumamoto, journalists turned up to discover one of the press tribunes had been reserved for VIPs, the table and power points apparently more necessary for host city officials than the working press, whose job was made no easier by less-than-reliable wi-fi at all three stadiums.
More importantly, fans also vented their frustration at the accessibility of the stadiums and the services on offer when they got to the ground.
At Kumamoto, for example, Egao Kenko Stadium is accessed by a two-car train on a single line followed by a shuttle bus. Not that bad for Japanese people used to cramped rush-hour commutes but farmers from New Zealand and South Africa will struggle.
And the venues saw huge lines for the limited number of refreshment stalls, though to be fair there were a few beer girls (seen in far greater numbers at baseball games) in the stands at Ajinomoto Stadium.
And remember this was for a Japanese crowd for whom the big-match experience is a slightly more sober affair than those coming from overseas — of which the organizing committee says 400,000 are expected.
In 2014, the 80,000 people (including a large number of kids and some non-drinkers) who watched the England-Ireland game at London’s Twickenham stadium consumed 160,000 pints of beer.
And as for the decision to play a number of preseason games at the same time as the Brave Blossoms, World Rugby Hall of Famer Yoshihiro Sakata was gobsmacked, saying simply “The national team must be the No. 1 priority.”
As one of the Irish journalists who was here for the past two weeks wrote, “A lot of heads need knocking together if Japan is to be ready for 2019 Rugby World Cup,” with opening night just 27 months away.
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