Cast your mind back a few weeks to the Junior World Cup. It was certainly an interesting tournament. Wales beat New Zealand, inflicting a first ever defeat at this level on the Baby All Blacks. The hosts were beaten in the first game by the Irish, only to bounce back superbly to win the tournament outright only two weeks later. Indeed, it was a much needed shakeup for top tier rugby at this age group.
While all of that was going on, the much less glamorous and publicised IRB Junior World Trophy was also getting underway. The final saw the hosts, the US, go head to head with Japan in a smashing contest. A Noah Tarrant try in the last 10 minutes gave the Americans a narrow 37-33 victory, a fitting end to a fine competition. No doubt the US will be ecstatic that they now get the opportunity to compete with the big guns in the JWC next year, but one gets the feeling that the IRB will be mildly disappointed that Japan managed to fall at the final hurdle for the third year in a row.
It’s common knowledge that in 7 years Japan will be hosting the first ever senior World Cup to be held outside of one of the traditional rugby powerhouses. The decision to award the competition to Japan was something of a gamble on the part of the game’s governing body, considering that the Japanese national side had yet to register a win at World Cup when the call was made. It no doubt would have been of some reassurance to the IRB to see Japan win, meaning it would be them competing against the World’s best next year, a real sign that rugby is heading in the right direction in east Asia. This latest failure, coupled with the drubbing the under 20’s suffered at the hands of the Welsh earlier in the year (119-7) will have the game’s officials concerned as to whether this generation of Japanese players will manage to be competitive come 2019.
So, how goes the preparation for the World Cup? I’d rather not concern myself with off field issues such as stadia and capacities and concentrate more on the on field performances of the national team as they gear up for the biggest event the sport has to offer.
Firstly, let’s take a look at the performances of the senior team this year. As per usual Japan competed in the Asian 5 Nations and the Pacific Nations Cup, and this year they welcomed the French Barbarians for a two match tour. The Asian 5 Nations saw Japan record their 5th clean sweep in as many years, although considering the level of opposition that feat is neither all that impressive nor indicative of where they stand as a rugby power. The PNC was a much tougher test for Japan, seeing them fail to win a single match for the first time since the introduction of the competition in 2007. That said, Japan were extremely competitive in all three games, obtaining a losing bonus point in each and coming within a single point of champions Samoa. This represents the continuation of Japan’s competitiveness in this tournament, having won 4 out of 6 games in the two years previous. Perhaps we should cut the some slack, considering that this is Eddie Jones’ first year in charge of the team. The French Barbarians posed a tougher test again. Featuring French internationals such as Guillaume Boussés, William Servat, Romain Millo-Chluski and Ibrahim Diarra, the Barbarian side swept to two comprehensive victories, 40-21 in the first test and 51-18 in the second. On a positive note, the Brave Blossoms fielded relatively young sides in both tests, with the average age of the XXII in the second test being just 24, with an average of 17 tests per player. No doubt the experience will do these players a world of good.
From the perspective of getting Japan competitive these sort of tours are vital. Unfortunately, only Wales (2013), Scotland (2016) and Ireland (2017) are scheduled to visit before the World Cup and with two of tours taking place during years in which the Lions are also touring, it would seem that Japan will be getting fewer chances to test themselves against top tier nations than would be preferable. On the other hand, 2013 will see the expansion of the PNC to feature Canada and the United States, guaranteeing Japan two more games a year against decent opposition.
With the senior team out of the way, let’s turn our attention to the under 20’s. As stated earlier, this year’s JWT saw Japan get to their third final in a row, losing once more. In previous years they were somewhat unlucky, coming up against Italy and Samoa, but this year they really should have gotten themselves promoted if they harbour serious ambitions about competing with the tier 1 nations. This means another year of playing the likes of Zimbabwe and Canada as opposed to South Africa and New Zealand. The under 20’s also took part in a four game tour Britain earlier in the year, playing Wales, Bridgend College, the Welsh Academicals and an Irish Exiles side. The tour resulted in three losses, with the only win coming against the exiles side. Despite this, Gareth Nicholas who coached both the Bridgend and Academicals sides was full of praise of the young Japanese side following the final game of the tour:
“The standard of play was much better than I expected and a vast improvement from the first game they played.”
Eddie Jones also had something to say of the tour, although his comments concerning the Welsh game were less positive:
“It just reinforces that we need to change the way things are done here. We need to improve the fitness of the young players so it of a world class standard, and we need to improve the way they are coached”
Jones makes a good point here. The Japanese side was composed solely of players playing either university or high school rugby. Contrast that with the Welsh side, all of whom would be playing for their regions or in their academies. Essentially, it was a case of professionals versus amateurs and in that struggle there can only be one winner, regardless of how talented your players are. There is no way that they can compete with the physicality of tier one nations at this age unless serious changes are made to the way the game is run at an underage level in Japan. This is borne out by comment made by team manager Yasuhiro Iijima:
“We need to… cope with the intensity of some of the defending we’re going to face. We are not used to that strength and speed.”
So, with that in mind, what can the JRFU do itself to help prepare the national team for the 2019 World Cup? A start would be a reform of the underage system. It is vital that they can identify talent at an early age and give these players a better level of coaching than they are currently receiving, as well as preparing them for the physicality of the professional game. This is not just a Japanese problem of course, but one being encountered by most of the smaller nations, even those in tier 1. Secondly, the Japanese domestic game is in need of some review. The season is quite short and, as all players are employees of companies who field teams, it quite common that these players are working full time while also trying to play rugby at a very high level. This simply isn’t a feasible model if Japan is to get the best out of these players. Perhaps cutting the number of teams in the Top League to 8 as opposed to 14, and having these teams play each other three times, allowing more fixtures and a more concentrated pool of resources and high calibre players could be the way forward. Failing this, Japan needs to look at getting more of its internationals playing abroad in the professional Leagues of Europe and SANZAR. To the best of my knowledge, only second row Justin Ives, hooker Shota Horie and diminutive scrum half Fumiaki Tanaka ply their trade outside of Japan, with all three set to play for Otago in the ITM Championship this year. The more players they can get playing at a high level the better, so in my opinion the likes of Eddie Jones should seriously be pushing his players toward playing abroad.
In closing, I must say that I’m mildly optimistic for Japan’s prospects at the 2019 World Cup. They’ll more than likely receive a top seeding, which will significantly improve their group. They’ll be playing more test rugby over the next 7 years than ever before, their juvenile teams seem to be competing at the very top end of the second tier, and they have a relatively young team, most of whom will still be around come 2019. If they can get to the level of Samoa for example, there’s a decent possibility that they could be aiming for a quarter final spot, which would be an excellent return for a team that only won its first World Cup game in 2011.
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