With less than three weeks to go before the 2019 Rugby World Cup coaches name their final squads, and 41 days before the tournament kicks off in Tokyo, it is a nervous time for players.
While warm-up games — and there are plenty this weekend in addition to the final round of Pacific Nations Cup and Rugby Championship games — give those deemed borderline a chance to impress, the significant rise in intensity at training ahead of those matches can also see dreams shattered.
Wales No. 8 Taulupe Faletau found that out two weeks ago when he suffered a broken collarbone in training, a big blow to the Six Nations champion, a team many feel could become just the second side from the Northern Hemisphere to win the Webb Ellis Trophy.
But former Wales star Shane Williams, who spent a number of years playing in Japan for the Mitsubishi Sagamihara Dynaboars, wrote in a column for The Rugby Paper that such games were essential despite the risk to those involved.
“I’ve read a lot of criticism of the fact Wales are playing too many matches and too many against top quality opposition,” he wrote. “Four games is a lot and the reality is there will be injuries — either niggles or serious problems — but Wales are by no means on their own in how they are approaching their World Cup preparations. The big three Southern Hemisphere sides are all going at it against each other in the Rugby Championship at the moment. They will then play further warm-up games too.”
One of those games for South Africa will see it face Japan at Kumagaya Rugby Stadium on Sept. 6, a replay of one of the biggest upsets the world of sports has ever seen.
The South Africans have been keen to point out that revenge is far from their minds.
But for many of us who were in Brighton, England, in 2015 when Japan famously won 34-32, the feeling is it will be a highly physical affair.
Japan has, to date, been fairly lucky with injuries, with Grant Hattingh the only player deemed a near certainty to spend the World Cup rehabbing rather than playing.
And coach Jamie Joseph will be hoping the squad he names at the end of August can get through the Springboks game unscathed so as to give itself a chance to make a name for itself in the same way Ayumu Goromaru did four years.
Though most of the Brave Blossoms will be hoping they do not fall off the international radar as quickly as the former fullback, whose kicking pose was, for a short time, imitated all over Japan as “Goromania” swept the nation.
Goromaru’s fall from grace is something many overseas followers of the game still struggle to comprehend.
How could one of the top players of the tournament, they say, no longer be part of the Japan setup?
As I keep telling them, Goromaru played out of his skin in Japan’s four games at RWC 2015. But that was not totally reflective of his overall career.
Goromaru made his test debut while still a student at Waseda University in a 24-18 loss to Uruguay in Montevideo.
But he struggled early on at test-match level, in part because his four years of collegiate rugby never really challenged him, and he missed the 2007 and 2011 World Cups having played just 11 tests between his debut and the game against Samoa on Oct. 30, 2010.
Eddie Jones gave him a new lease of life, however, and made him one of the team leaders. And the new responsibility saw Goromaru grow in stature culminating in those four games at the World Cup.
The 28-18 win over the United States in Japan’s last pool game, however, proved to be his last as injuries and loss of form while playing for the Reds and then Toulon saw his playing time limited in subsequent years.
One player, already being slated to be a standout player in 2019 is Kenki Fukuoka, who showed he is in sparkling form with a superb individual try last week against Tonga in Osaka.
And the flying wing is set to follow Goromaru’s example of the World Cup being his last international hurrah — but for entirely different reasons.
Fukuoka has said he is retiring from test-match rugby following the RWC to allow him to try and become a two-time Olympian, having helped Japan to fourth place at the Rio de Janeiro Games.
Following the Summer Games, he will then hang up his boots for good and exchange them for scrubs as he heads to medical school in hopes of following in the family business and becoming a doctor.
Jones said Fukuoka was as quick as Springboks legend Bryan Habana. What’s more, his club coach, Robbie Deans, said of the flyer, “He would make genuinely any international side in the world. He’s a remarkable player, very fast (and) sees no obstacles.”
Joseph, meanwhile, will be hoping Fukuoka stays injury-free and has as much of an impact as Goromaru did in 2015, as that would go a long way to Japan reaching its goal — a place in the quarterfinals.
Rich Freeman writes about rugby for Kyodo News and can be heard talking about it during Sunwolves’ home games.