With the Rugby World Cup set for next year, head coach Jamie Joseph believes there is still a lot of room for the Japan national team to improve. To reach that target, he insisted that the Brave Blossoms need to keep playing Tier 1 countries in order to meet their goal at the 2019 global tournament.

As he returned from Europe after his squad’s autumn internationals against England and Russia, Joseph addressed the Brave Blossoms’ progress and issues at a Tokyo news conference on Tuesday.

Joseph said that last year his Brave Blossoms were lacking physicality and a full commitment to compete on par against Tier 1 nations, which they need to do to meet their objective of finishing in the top eight at the World Cup.

“I guess for me as the head coach after Super Rugby 2017 and our Irish series in June 2017, it was very clear our players just weren’t ready to play test match rugby against Tier 1 teams,” said Joseph, who took over the post in late 2016. “In terms of our fitness and our ability to play at that level of rugby week in and week out, we just weren’t fit or strong enough.”

But he stressed that the team has steadily raised the bar. The Kiwi emphasized that he realized that the more time he spent developing his players, the better they became.

Joseph’s team fell to a World XV squad and the Wallabies last fall, but he thinks that as the tour went on, the Brave Blossoms got “better and better.”

“So we had a convincing win against Tonga and we should’ve beaten France, we had a draw against France in Paris,” said Joseph, who stated that the participation of the top Japanese players for the Sunwolves has contributed to strengthening the squad. “Which really shows the signs of when you spend more time with the players and the players’ understanding of the game and their roles increase along with their fitness and ability . . . we’re a very competitive team.”

This year, the Brave Blossoms played seven games and won three of them. They beat Tier-1 nation Italy in the first of a two-game series, while they shut out Georgia 28-0 in June. And Japan wrapped up its three-match test series with a 32-27 victory on Saturday over Russia, whom the host nation will play in the opening game of the 2019 World Cup in Tokyo, in Gloucester, England.

Japan hosted the All Blacks in Tokyo and fell 69-31 to the two-defending World Cup champions on Nov. 3.

“We’re not going to be able to beat the best teams in the world if we don’t actually play them, so a big part of the plan was to ensure that before we get to the World Cup, that we play all the Tier 1 teams in preparation for our World Cup.”

He also insisted that adding more depth to the squad would be an urgent issue to cope with injuries.

The Brave Blossoms are scheduled to announce their preliminary training squad in mid-December. The Japan Rugby Football Union plans to focus on strengthening the candidate players during the Super Rugby season between February and May, then begin training as a national team in June.

The JRFU is set to announce its World Cup squad in June before competing at the Pacific Nations Cup next summer.

Staff writer Jason Coskrey contributed to this report.

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