Japan coach Jamie Joseph named 42 players Monday that will form the basis of the Brave Blossoms squad for this year’s Rugby World Cup.
Led by captain Michael Leitch, the squad — which contains just 12 players with previous World Cup experience — will hold three camps in Miyazaki Prefecture before playing Fiji, Tonga and the United States in the Pacific Nations Cup, a six-team tournament ahead of the World Cup.
The team will then reassemble in August for a camp in Hokkaido before the squad is cut to 31 in line with World Cup rules.
“As director of rugby I have many different roles and jobs, but my core focus is to build a team that can win at the World Cup,” Joseph said. “And we are now in a really good spot to push forward to the next stage of preparation.”
While most of the inclusions could have been predicted, there were a couple of surprises, most notably the oldest and youngest players named.
If he makes the cut, veteran lock Luke Thompson will play in his fourth World Cup at the age of 38, while 23-year-old wing Ataata Moeakiola, who has been playing Super Rugby for the Chiefs, has also been included.
“I love his experience and resilience,” Joseph said of Thompson, who has played only one test match since the 2015 World Cup.
“He understands he is a late inclusion, but if you look at teams that have been successful at World Cups, they have a good balance of experience and Thommo gives us that. If he continues to play as he has for the Sunwolves then he will be a valuable member of the team, but he knows (he) has a long way to go,” Joseph said.
Moeakiola’s inclusion can be attributed to Joseph’s desire to pick big, physical players, especially in the back three, with the Tokai University graduate packing 114 kg into his 185-cm frame.
“Our wings will be attacked and pressured with the aerial game (especially against Ireland) and we need bigger players with that skill set,” Joseph said.
Joseph, who played in the 1995 World Cup for New Zealand and the 1999 tournament for Japan, said he believes he has picked a squad with the right balance and stressed versatility had weighed in certain selections.
“I’m looking for players who, under pressure, can play different positions,” he said.
There are six uncapped forwards in the squad in prop Yusuke Kizu, hooker Takuya Kitade, locks James Moore and Grant Hattingh, and back-rowers Pieter “Lappies” Labuschagne and Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco.
Joseph admitted that four of those new players had yet to officially obtain clearance regarding their eligibility to play for Japan, but he was hopeful all would be approved very soon.
“They have done the requirements, it’s just an issue of timing,” he explained.
With Leitch having not played this year as the result of a long-standing pelvic injury and just four of the backs — Fumiaki Tanaka, Yu Tamura, Kenki Fukuoka and Kotaro Matsushima — having World Cup experience, there could be concerns about the team’s leadership group.
But Joseph dismissed them, saying the team’s senior players, even without Leitch, had developed a long way and “they were now comfortable challenging the coaches.”
“One of the biggest areas we have worked on is developing the players so they have the ability to adapt and adjust under pressure when the World Cup starts,” he said.
Notable exclusions from the squad are Harumichi Tatekawa and Akihito Yamada, who will both travel to South Africa and Argentina for the Sunwolves’ final two games of the Super Rugby season.
“We know there will be injuries so we will need players to stay rugby fit and ready, so if the call comes they will be ready. The door is not closed to anyone,” Joseph said.
Japan takes on Fiji in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, on July 27, Tonga a week later in Osaka, and the U.S. in Fiji on Aug. 10.
Following the announcement of their 31-man RWC squad, Japan will play South Africa in Kumagaya, Saitama Prefecture, on Sept 6, before they kick off its World Cup campaign on Sept. 20 in Tokyo against Russia.