Rugby

Pacific Nations Cup provides vital testing ground before Rugby World Cup

by Todd Phillips

Contributing Writer

With just under two months remaining before Japan faces Russia in the opening match of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, the Brave Blossoms return to the Pacific Nations Cup after a three-year hiatus.

The PNC usually features the Pacific nations of Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, but this year Japan, Canada and the United States also join the tournament to aid with preparation for the World Cup.

The Brave Blossoms’ last appearance in the PNC was in 2015 before the team embarked on two years of World Cup qualifying matches and three summers of internationals involving Scotland (2016), Ireland (2017) and Italy followed by Georgia (2018).

In the 2019 series, each side plays just three games with Japan facing Fiji on Saturday in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, and Tonga on Aug. 3 at Hanazono Rugby Stadium in Osaka Prefecture, before flying out to Suva, Fiji, to take on the United States on Aug. 10.

Japan has won the tournament twice (2011 and 2014), and a third victory would give the team a real confidence boost ahead of the World Cup group matches against Russia, Ireland, Samoa and Scotland.

The only major hurdle that stands between the Brave Blossoms and a clean slate is Fiji, a team that has a solid foundation with its highly successful rugby sevens team.

The Pacific Islanders are renowned for being elusive with ball in hand and are experts at offloading. Japan will need to employ a speedy line defense to nullify the threat the big Fijian ball carriers pose.

Fiji comes into this tournament battle-hardened after sharing the spoils in a two-match series with the Maori All Blacks. Two weeks ago in Suva, the home side made history with a first win over the Maori All Blacks since 1957. With 11 changes to the side the following week, Fiji went down narrowly to the same opponent in New Zealand.

Those results will have served notice to the Brave Blossoms that Fiji will provide the toughest challenge of the competition.

Head coach Jamie Joseph — with Tony Brown assisting — has been in charge of the Japan national team’s training and development since February.

During the last five months, a wider World Cup training squad (called the Wolf Pack) has been going up against the second teams of Super Rugby franchises, including the Hurricanes (twice), the Highlanders and the Rebels.

In addition to these knock-around matches, a number of Wolf Pack players were rotated into the Sunwolves, a Super Rugby squad, when key members were struck down by injury, only to return to Joseph’s training regimen a few weeks later.

Shortly after the Super Rugby season finished, 42 World Cup hopefuls were again assembled in Miyazaki for three weeks of vigorous fitness and conditioning. The squad that was announced for the PNC on July 17 has now been whittled down to 31 players.

As a result of these moves, many of the players who will line up on Saturday (including captain Michael Leitch) have not experienced much high-level intense rugby since their European tour late last year.

What’s more, Leitch has been slowly recovering from a groin strain he picked up last December. An injury that has the instrumental back-rower playing catch-up ahead of the opening match.

Whether or not a lack of game time impacts the PNC campaign, there’s no denying that Joseph’s men will be severely tested by a Fijian team that is ranked ninth in the world, (two places above Japan).

If Joseph’s plans of reaching the last eight in the Rugby World Cup are to be taken seriously, then a win over Fiji is a must. The odds, however, are firmly stacked in the Fijians’ favor.

Since the PNC was launched in 2006, Japan has beaten Fiji only once (out of nine encounters). That win came in 2011 when the Brave Blossoms lifted the cup for the first time.

Since 2015, Fiji has been indomitable, winning the PNC four years in a row. Japan will have to be at its very best if the defending champions are to be knocked over.

The second-round match against the 13th-ranked Tongans will not be any easier. Another Pacific Island team that brings a brutal physicality to the field and one that has had the rub of the green over Japan since 2012.

The Brave Blossoms will be eager to snap a four-game losing streak when the two teams meet in Higashiosaka, Osaka Prefecture, after dominating Tonga five consecutive years from 2007 to 2011.

Over the course of the PNC, Japan and the United States have only squared up twice, with a win apiece. The American team currently lies 15th in the World Rugby rankings, and that game should give Joseph the ideal opportunity to experiment with the team’s less experienced, younger players.

This competition will allow Joseph to tinker with his squad and try out some new combinations involving uncapped players as well as fine-tune his World Cup preparations.

All eyes will be on whether or not Joseph’s World Cup training strategies have sufficiently prepared the national squad to perform consistently over the next three weeks.

Regardless of the outcome, the PNC will serve as a massive test both mentally and physically for the Brave Blossoms and should put the team in good stead for its final warm-up game against South Africa on Sept. 6 at Kumagaya Rugby Stadium in Saitama.

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