The Japan national rugby team will not play any games at all in 2020, the Japan Rugby Football Union announced Monday, after restrictions on movement due to the COVID-19 pandemic scuppered plans to take part in an eight-team tournament in Europe this autumn.
Almost a year to the day since Japan began hosting Asia’s first-ever Rugby World Cup, JRFU Chairman Kensuke Iwabuchi said the Brave Blossoms had been forced to turn down an invitation to join the Six Nations and Fiji in the Autumn Nations Cup in November and December because the team and coaches had been unable to sufficiently prepare for the tournament.
Scheduled home test matches against Wales and England in June and July this year were also called off, meaning the Brave Blossoms have not played a match since their World Cup quarterfinal defeat to South Africa on Oct. 20 last year.
Head coach Jamie Joseph said “no stone had been left unturned” to find a way for the team to assemble at home or overseas before the end of the year, but the demands of international rugby made it impossible to go into the European tournament underprepared.
“I’m very disappointed that we weren’t able to play any rugby this year,” said Joseph, who signed a new contract after the World Cup. “I feel for the players, first and foremost. Our players have been working very hard behind the scenes to ensure that they were in the right condition to start our training camps, so I’m really disappointed for all of their efforts. I’m disappointed for the fans as well, because after last year’s World Cup efforts and results, it would have been great to continue our way along our rugby path.”
Japan made history by becoming the first Asian team to reach the World Cup knockout stage last year, after beating Russia, Ireland, Samoa and Scotland in the pool stage before finally bowing out in the quarterfinals against South Africa.
The JRFU was hoping to build on that momentum in 2020, but instead the pandemic ended the domestic Top League season in February after only six rounds and the national team has not been able to assemble for a single training session.
Georgia will take Japan’s place in the Autumn Nations Cup, which will see the eight teams divided into two groups of four in a round-robin format, before taking on the team which finished in the corresponding position in the other group.
“That would have been a wonderful tournament to have been a part of,” said Joseph. “Not only this year, but for the future. That simply is because we’re playing quality teams in a quality competition in quality stadiums, that gives our players the experience they need to develop our game and test it against some of the best teams in the world. Whilst it was disappointing, for me it’s not frustrating because it’s uncontrollable. COVID is something that nobody expected around the world.”
Japan was originally scheduled to play Wales, England, Scotland, Ireland and New Zealand in 2020, and Iwabuchi said the JRFU is speaking to other unions to try to reschedule fixtures next year.
“We’re hoping that we can have some exciting matches next year and we’re keeping our fingers crossed for that,” Iwabuchi said. “We want to revive the feeling we had and the supporters had during the World Cup, so the team, the staff and the whole JRFU are really positive about trying to make that happen. What we can say now is that there is no definite plan as of now, but we’re hoping that we can play in June or July next year, or at least start training together as early as possible.”
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