Japan coach Jamie Joseph promised the hosts would “give 150 percent” to hit their target of reaching the Rugby World Cup quarterfinals after naming his 31-man squad on Thursday.
The Brave Blossoms will be at full strength when they face Russia in the tournament’s opener in Tokyo on Sept. 20 after talismanic captain Michael Leitch returned from injury at the recent Pacific Nations Cup.
“The team has set a goal of making the top eight for the first time in the history of Japanese rugby,” Joseph said.
“The staff and players will give 150 percent — whether that’s enough only time will tell.
“Our game is based around speed, skill and unstructure,” added the former All Black. “But the key difference this year is we are fit enough now to play that game. We’re training at a level of intensity that’s 25 percent higher than our matches — I think that’s our key weapon.”
Japan won three games at the 2015 World Cup under Eddie Jones, including an astonishing 34-32 victory over two-time champion South Africa.
Currently ranked ninth in the world after capturing their third Pacific Nations title, the Japanese also take on Ireland, Scotland and Samoa in Pool A as they target a place in the knockout stage for the first time.
They will be boosted by their success at the Pacific Nations, where they beat Fiji (34-21), Tonga (41-7) and the United States (34-20).
Leitch’s return from a lengthy injury also helps Japan’s cause as it looks to go one further than at the last World Cup.
“We were incredibly relieved he got through the Pacific Nations,” Joseph said of Leitch
“He’s got a separation of the pelvis which hasn’t gone away — he’s just battling through it. Most days he’s in a level of pain he’s not used to but he’s a tough guy.”
The squad has just 10 players with previous World Cup experience and includes one uncapped player in hooker Takuya Kitade.
At the other end of the scale, veteran lock Luke Thompson will be appearing in his fourth World Cup, while Leitch, hooker Shota Horie and scrumhalf Fumiaki Tanaka will be taking part in their third straight tournament.
“The intangible asset we have is that we are very tight as a group,” said Joseph, who as a player represented New Zealand at the 1995 World Cup and Japan four years later.
“Of all the teams I have coached, I have always tried to create a group that will do anything to achieve their goal, and I can confidently say this group is aligned and ready to go.”
All but three of the players were part of the squad that won the Pacific Nations Cup, the exceptions being Kitade and props Isileli Nakajima and Koo Ji-won, who return from injury.
Joseph said Kitade’s inclusion at the expense of Suntory Sungoliath clubmate Kosuke Horikoshi came down to his line-out throwing and the latter having not developed as quickly as hoped due to playing prop in the last Top League season.
Nakajima and Koo’s inclusion means there is no place for prop Shogo Miura and flanker Shunsuke Nunomaki as Joseph opts to stabilize the scrum.
Wings Kenki Fukuoka and Kotaro Matsushima, who both featured in the 2015 tournament, and Lomano Lava Lemeki, who helped Japan’s sevens team to fourth place at the Rio Olympics, were also named, as was fullback Ryohei Yamanaka, who cemented his spot with a good performance in the final game of the PNC.
Tanaka (70 caps), Thompson (66), Leitch (62) Horie (61) and flyhalf Yu Tamura (57) lead the way in terms of experience, while 10 of the players, including Kitade, have yet to play 10 test matches.
Keita Inagaki, Yusuke Kizu, Koo Ji-won, Isileli Nakajima, Asaeli Ai Valu, Takuya Kitade, Atsushi Sakata, Shota Horie, Luke Thompson, Wimpie van der Walt, Uwe Helu, James Moore, Hendrik Tui, Yoshitaka Tokunaga, Michael Leitch (captain), Pieter Labuschagne, Kazuki Himeno, Amanaki Mafi
Kaito Shigeno, Fumiaki Tanaka, Yutaka Nagare, Yu Tamura, Rikiya Matsuda, Kenki Fukuoka, Ataata Moeakiola, Lomano Lemeki, William Tupou, Ryoto Nakamura, Timothy Lafaele, Kotaro Matsushima, Ryohei Yamanaka