Japan coach Jamie Joseph said earlier this week that his team’s “Rugby World Cup final would be making the top eight.”
But for a side hoping to get to the quarterfinals next year in Japan, a 3-4 record for 2018 is, at first glance, hardly the ideal preparation.
After all as the Brave Blossoms know only too well from 2015, even winning three out of four games in a World Cup pool doesn’t guarantee a spot in the last eight.
Back in May 2017, when the draw was made, many thought Japan had got it easy after it had been paired up with Ireland, Scotland, the playoff winner (Samoa) and the top European qualifier, which eventually proved to be Russia.
But the events of the last month have shown getting out of Pool A will be some feat.
Ireland is arguably the No. 1 team in the world right now, Scotland is forever improving and has a number of good scalps under its belt, Russia showed it will be a massive physical threat, while any team that writes off Samoa does so at its own peril.
But before anyone labels me a doom merchant it is important to recall that just two tournaments ago, the Brave Blossoms’ ambitions were considerably lower than now.
John Kirwan’s team went to New Zealand hoping to pick up two wins. It came back with just a draw with Canada to its name.
And it was one of those defeats — to Tonga in Whangarei — that is the key to how Japan might not only repeat its heroics of 2015 but actually go one step further and reach the last eight.
Kirwan’s side never looked like winning from the moment it made an error from the kickoff and went down 31-18 to a side it had beaten a few months earlier in the Pacific Nations Cup (albeit by just one point).
That lack of self-belief was a common trait throughout Japanese rugby, and it was even more of a problem at international level as the old excuse of “Japan not being big enough” kept getting used.
Perhaps the biggest legacy of Eddie Jones’ tenure was the mental toughness that the Brave Blossoms developed whereby they never gave up hope they could win a game — the most obvious example being those last few minutes against South Africa in Brighton three years ago.
While Joseph is still talking about size being a problem, the mental side of things has continued to develop and was very much evident in the autumn, following games in June that saw them split a two-game series with Italy and beat Georgia.
A poor first half against the World XV at the end of October in Osaka was followed by a spirited comeback.
“We could have drawn the game but our mindset was to win as only a win will get you into the last eight at the World Cup,” Joseph said of the 31-28 defeat.
And against Russia last weekend in Gloucester, England, the side responded from a 22-10 deficit at halftime to win 32-27, a result that Joseph said he was “very proud of.”
The second and third games of the autumn saw Japan take on two of the big boys in New Zealand and England, and once again we saw reasons why the Brave Blossoms could make the top eight and also reasons why they will struggle.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen praised the “razzle-dazzle” of a Japan side that scored five tries.
But truth be told, this was a second-string New Zealand side that had had only a few training sessions together and the 10 tries conceded by Joseph’s side would have been eyed with interest by their World Cup opponents.
Two weeks later, Japan produced a superb first half to lead England at Twickenham before fading away — in part because of its indiscipline.
“I thought we were hard done by,” Joseph said after his team conceded just one penalty in the first half and eight in the second. “It cost us the test match. We have to have the ability to adapt when a referee changes his mind.”
So which Japan will turn up next year?
The Brave Blossoms, by their coach’s own admission, still don’t have 30 players that are good enough to play test-match rugby.
“One of our biggest challenges has always been depth,” Joseph said. “If a Tier 1 county gets a few injuries, they can replace them with players as good. That’s not the case with Japan.”
On the plus side, Joseph has realized that the team can’t always run with the same game plan.
“We learnt against the Tier 1 sides we have to hold onto the ball a little bit more than against Tier 2 sides,” he said. “Against Russia we kicked three times as much (as against England). It’s horses for courses and we always have to be adjusting.”
The 2019 Super Rugby campaign will hopefully see a few more players progress to the level needed to play and win international games.
The Brave Blossoms will then play in the Pacific Nations Cup and there is a pre-World Cup game with South Africa in the pipeline before they head to the biggest stage of all.
“I feel we are improving in our levels of belief and am confident in our attacking ability. We just need innovative and smarter ways to stop the bigger teams,” Joseph said.