• Nikkan Sports


Keisuke Sawaki, 44, a former Japan assistant coach under Eddie Jones in the 2015 Rugby World Cup, has made bold predictions for the upcoming World Cup in Japan. Sawaki, who has been analyzing recent test matches, highly values the Jones-led England team. Here are Sawaki’s predictions during the interview with Nikkan Sports. (This is the English version of Nikkan Sports content on Pages 7 and 8).

The 2019 World Cup is finally approaching. Which teams do you think are contenders?

Well, I think it will be either New Zealand and England, or perhaps Ireland. The Tier 1 teams know how to maintain their conditions and when to peak over the course of the tournament.

What’s your pick in each pool?

In Pool A, Ireland stands out the most. Scotland and Japan follows after. It’s likely 2-1 teams battle for the quarterfinal spot in the head-to-head in their last pool match. Some expect Japan to make the quarterfinals for the first time and I think they have chance.

In Pool B, New Zealand and South Africa are contenders. They play each other in their first pool match. South Africa is getting better, their forwards are especially great. However, New Zealand has the advantage in terms of the experience. I feel like New Zealand is going to win the pool.

I would pick England and France from Pool C. Argentina struggled in selecting members because they could not call up some players based outside Argentina. But they are one of the better teams in the world and if they beat France in their first match, Pool C is going to be very competitive. England can get off to a good start when they meet Tonga in their first match.

Many think Wales and Australia will set the pace for Pool D.

Fiji has the potential to be a giant killer just like Japan in Pool A. Fiji has improved since they played Japan last month. They meet Australia first, so it could be a match to watch.If Australia loses to Fiji, a loss to Wales would end their bid for quarterfinals.

Is New Zealand the team to beat?

New Zealand is very good and in good condition. However, I would pick England as the favorite. They were in good shape and well prepared during their Sept. 6 test match against Italy. Eddie has a reputation of preparing his squad through well-planned scheduling.

England has some experienced players but also some are inexperienced players such as Ruaridh McConnochie, who switched from seven-a-side rugby.

England mixed experienced players such as scrum half Ben Youngs and prop Dan Cole, both of who have two World Cups under their belts, with younger players. That’s how they keep players motivated.

New Zealand also looks good.

They did not call up veteran prop Owen Franks this time, but anybody in the squad can play at a high level. The three-peat is not easy to accomplish, but they have chance.

Does New Zealand have any weaknesses?

Their players have attacking mentality and their offense is very good. But they struggle when they are trailing. When they allow a try accidentally like in a counter, it affects them. They’re vulnerable when they’re behind.

What about current world No. 1 Ireland?

A good team. They are confident. Flyhalf Jonathan Sexton’s comeback from injury added some stability to the team. Ireland is surely the contender to win Pool A, but I’m not sure if they are good enough to win the championship. I’d pick England as favorite, followed by New Zealand. I’m looking forward to the tournament’s opening day.

The referees of the World Cup have been announced.

It is very important to thoroughly analyze how they judge or whether they prefer certain plays, as well where and when they are likely to call fouls. Wales’ Nigel Owens has been named the referee of Japan’s first match against Russia on Sept. 20. He was the referee of the 2015 World Cup final and is one of the sport’s most famous referees. He has a lot of experience and is very skilled at managing the match.

How does Owens judge?

Owens doesn’t blow the whistle very often. He smoothly manages play so that players do not commit many fouls. Communication with referees is important. You have to give them a good impression in order to earn an advantage.

How can the Japan squad communicate with Owens?

Captain Michael Leitch should communicate with Owens in the early stage of the match. For example, he could ask how Owens sees the play after he blows the whistle.

If Owens gives his feedback, and says something like “this play is very close to a foul,” Letch should relay the message to his teammates and tell them to avoid making the same play. If an offside is called, they should line up way behind the line in the next play. That sort of thing helps control the timing of whistle.

What are the referees for Japan’s other matches like?

Angus Gardner of Australia tends to call fouls often. Jaco Peyper of South Africa is more patient than before. Neither of them is biased or concerning for Japan.

Keisuke Sawaki was born on April 12 in 1975 in Oga, Akita Prefecture. He joined the Suntory Sungoliath after graduating from Nihon University in 1998, playing flyhalf and center. Sawaki started his coaching career with Suntory in 2006 and was named head coach of Under-20 national team in 2013. He became head coach of the Sungoliath in 2016 and led the team to back-to-back Top League championships during the 2016-2018 seasons before stepping down after last season.

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