Rugby | ADDING THE EXTRAS

Brave Blossoms face key tests on road to 2019 World Cup

by Rich Freeman

With preparations going smoothly and everything seemingly well on track off the field for a successful Rugby World Cup 2019, it’s now time to see if Japan’s preparations on the field are going just as well.

The Brave Blossoms play four games in the coming weeks that will give head coach Jamie Joseph an idea of where his team stands, and whether they are on track to reach the quarterfinals, something England were unable to do last time around, the first time in the history of the tournament the hosts had failed to progress from the pool stage.

Japan play a World XV on Oct. 26 and New Zealand on Nov. 3 in Osaka and Tokyo, respectively, before they fly to England to take on Eddie Jones’ side at Twickenham on Nov. 17. A week later they play Russia in Gloucester in a preview of the opening game of next year’s tournament.

“I wouldn’t say that I am incredibly confident but I think we are in a very good spot a year out from the World Cup and we are starting to create a little bit of momentum,” Joseph said at a recent event marking one year to go until the World Cup kicks off.

Maintaining that momentum will be crucial as Japan look to build on a good series of results that have seen them beat Tonga, Italy and Georgia and draw with France.

First up for Joseph and his team is a star-studded World XV, a side that has beaten Japan the last two times out.

“It’s a great build up match for Japan, a valuable exercise for the players and the coaches,” said World XV coach Robbie Deans.

“That showed in the results and, as importantly, the performances that Japan produced in the weeks after the match in Fukuoka last year,” he added referring to the win over Tonga and draw with France.

Following that, Japan take on two of the biggest names in the sport in New Zealand and England.

“The All Blacks and England will really attack our set pieces and try and overwhelm us from the set pieces, and that is a challenge that we are going to get in the World Cup as well, when we play Ireland and Scotland,” Joseph said.

The series concludes with Russia in Gloucester, a ground Japan know well, having played there four times in the past five years including two World Cup games.

Joseph, however, says he does not know much about the Russians, and the chances are both sides will avoid displaying their full hand given the importance of their next match-up.

That could see a few fringe players start in Gloucester, though at this stage one player who has been lauded by his club coach Deans as world class will not be one of them.

Takuya Yamasawa has — much like England’s mercurial flyhalf Danny Cipriani — been deemed surplus to requirements by his national coach.

Canon Eagles pivot Yu Tamura and Rikiya Matsuda, whose playing time in the No. 10 jersey at Panasonic Wild Knights is blocked by Yamasawa, have instead been handed the responsibility of running Joseph’s game plan.

“(Tamura and Matsuda) have test match experience and although Yamasawa is in great form, Top League rugby is a little bit different from playing the All Blacks,” Joseph said. “Putting him in the cauldron against (New Zealand) the best team in the world would not be good for his development.”

That of course begs the question as to when Yamasawa will be given a chance at the highest level.

It also goes against what Joseph has said about two other young players who have been included in the squad.

“It’s an opportunity to see if we can develop them fast enough for the World Cup,” Joseph said of the Suntory Sungoliath pair of hooker Kosuke Horikoshi and center Yusuke Kajimura.

Elsewhere, the squad is as expected though there are three major omissions in hooker Shota Horie, center Harumichi Tatekawa and No. 8 Amanaki Lelei Mafi, all of whom were central to Japan’s stunning run at the 2015 World Cup.

Horie is being rested, Tatekawa excluded on recent form while Mafi is under a club and country ban until his ongoing court case in New Zealand for the alleged assault of a Melbourne Rebels teammate reaches its conclusion.

Joseph recently talked about how his squad have developed, pointing out that, “When I came here, the Japanese players were reactive, waiting for leadership and direction.

“They were reluctant to challenge or be proactive, reluctant to make a mistake, reluctant to try something until they fully understood it 100 percent.

“What I am seeing now is players who are confident, players that are proactive, players that are trying things in a game. They are not worried about making mistakes, not worried about failure but instead just excited about having a go.”

Local organizers will be hoping that carries through to next year when Japan take on Russia, Samoa, Ireland and Scotland in Pool A of the World Cup.

“After the pool games, 12 teams go home. Only eight teams stay for the quarterfinals — that’s the real World Cup,” said Koji Tokumasu, senior director of the local organizing committee and former president of Asia Rugby.

“If Japan aren’t still in the tournament, it makes a big difference. It will be very difficult to maintain excitement (if they are knocked out in the pool stage).”

The next few weeks will give us a clue if that scenario will come true or not.

Rich Freeman writes about rugby for Kyodo News and can be heard talking about it during Sunwolves’ home games.