Rugby

Japan needs to prove Rugby World Cup's 'Once in a Lifetime' catchphrase wrong

by Rich Freeman

Kyodo

The catchphrase of the ongoing Rugby World Cup in Japan is “Once in a Lifetime.” The big question, a day after the Brave Blossoms were knocked out of the competition by South Africa, is will Japanese rugby be able to prove that wrong and make reaching the knockout stage a regular occurrence.

Those that see the glass half full will talk about the great style of rugby played by the Brave Blossoms and the tremendous support shown by the entire nation.

They will say Japan has proved itself worthy of playing in one of the two Tier-One competitions, the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship, and that this nation represents the future of rugby.

Those that look at a half-empty glass, however, will point out that unless there are some major changes to the way the game is run then history is unlikely to repeat itself, especially as it is highly unlikely any national team will ever have the same type of preparation as this one.

“I’m just the coach and my job is to get the boys ready and to get them playing rugby like they have been playing. If we can put the right system in place then it can keep growing,” coach Jamie Joseph said when asked what impact the tournament would have.

Getting the right systems in place for this team was behind their success.

Making use of a front five that more than held its own in the tight, a world-class back-row that proved they were just as physical as any team in the tournament, good decision makers in the backs and some real pace and flair out wide.

As flyhalf Yu Tamura put it, this was “undoubtedly the strongest and best and most wonderful team, and the 31 here are the most wonderful players in the history (of Japanese rugby).”

Of course there was the team’s willingness to train and train and train, helped that as host nation they had been in camp since February.

If Joseph does not continue — and sources suggest he will not — then his successor will have to try and emulate the success of the 2019 side without some of the luxuries and players the present coaching set-up has had.

Luke Thompson, Fumiaki Tanaka, Kenki Fukuoka, Shota Horie and Michael Leitch will probably not feature in 2023, for a number of reasons.

Kazuki Himeno and Kotaro Matsushima will be around, but are there more from where they came from?

The Sunwolves, the Japanese franchise competing in the Super Rugby tournament, have played a huge role in getting players used to playing and living outside their comfort zone.

That ensured that on and off the field they were able to cope with the pressure that was weighing on their shoulders as hosts.

“It’s been crazy,” said Lomano Lava Lemeki. “Before the World Cup you could walk down the street and do whatever you want. You could walk down naked and nobody would (care). But after this World Cup, everyone knows who you are.”

It meant the team were no longer in awe of bigger opponents and trusted their own game, as shown in those amazing wins against Ireland and Scotland.

But, at this stage, Japan’s Super Rugby franchise will be gone after next year.

Japan Rugby Football Union President Shigetaka Mori has said he hopes that decision can be reversed. He has also said he hopes Japan can join the Rugby Championship.

On Monday there were suggestions that those two issues would be discussed by SANZAAR, the organizer of Super Rugby, later this week.

A day earlier, South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus said that Japan’s inclusion in the Rugby Championship “would be interesting,” but he also pointed out logistical issues that plagued the Sunwolves.

“I think it’s a good debate to have. Their style of play would be something interesting. But then there are all the questions, such as the weather, possible problems and solutions, positive and negative, I just wouldn’t know. I haven’t really put my thinking hat on about that.”

“It looks like a good proposition, but then it comes to whether it’s logistically and financially possible. Would it make sense in terms of broadcasting and travel-wise? I do know the brand they play is exciting and they would really fit in. But apart from that I’d be stupid to comment because I’m not part of those discussions.”

Like many things associated with post-World Cup rugby in Japan, there remain more questions than answers.

Mori said nothing concrete had been out in place regarding the way rugby is run at school and youth level, despite the union knowing for 10 years that it was holding the tournament.

So quite how all the children that have started loving the sport will be able to actually play is unknown.

In fact the only certain thing right now is that on Nov. 18 JRFU Vice President Katsuyuki Kiyomiya is set to announce plans for a new professional league.

Whether that will, as previously indicated, see 12 local teams based in RWC host cities or whether it includes a number of overseas-based teams following Japanese advertising giant Dentsu Inc.’s buy-out of the leading New Zealand player agency remains to be seen.

And if SANZAAR do reverse their decision on the Sunwolves and allow Japan to play in the Rugby Championship, where does this new league fit in?

It is easy to say we should all just wait, and that for now all we should focus on is the amazing performance from Joseph and his team.

But the powers that be owe it to the players and coaches to see that their hard work is not wasted.

Japan’s success on the field came down to the likes of Yutaka Nagare and Timothy Lafaele not delaying and making the right call when it needed to be made.

The JRFU needs to follow their example to ensure “Once in a Lifetime” refers to the concept of hosting rather than the success of the national team.

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