Eddie Jones sets Japan on path to RWC 2019
While Japanese Rugby Union officials have been meeting off the field with Rugby World Cup Limited this week, the country's newlook national team has started out on its journey to Rugby World Cup 2015 and, beyond that, Rugby World Cup 2019 on home soil under the guidance of new head coach, Eddie Jones.
Immediate thoughts rest on the HSBC Asian 5 Nations and the IRB Pacific Nations Cup but beyond that lies qualification for England 2015 and Japan's first Asian showpiece four years later.
In heavy rain and unseasonably windy conditions the players making up Jones' first squad selection ran out onto a training pitch in Kakegawa-city, Shizuoka-prefecture, 230 kilometres west of Tokyo.
"We had a really enthusiastic session, some rookies plus some experienced players have given the squad a good feel," said a satisfied Jones after his first session in charge.
Last month Jones announced a squad of 30 players to compete in the 'Top 5' tournament of Asia's regional championship, committing to select "the best players, or players who will be the best by the time the 2015 World Cup comes around in England.”
As part of that strategy, the 52-year-old former Wallaby head coach, who won a World Cup with South Africa in 2007, has selected no fewer than 14 uncapped players.
"It's a very exciting squad, lots of good young players and some really good experienced players," he added.
Jones targets World's Top 10
The youngest player is 18 year old university freshman Yoshikazu Fujita, who played on the last four rounds of the HSBC Sevens World Series, including most recently at the Tokyo Sevens last weekend.
“We have a number of players who are still at university, they are full of potential and energy but they all need plenty of hard work," said Jones, whose dual target is to take Japan into the top 10 in the IRB World Rankings and ultimately gain the country's first win in a Rugby World Cup in 20 years, at the next edition in England.
In contrast to John Kirwan’s Rugby World Cup squad, which included 10 oversees-born players, most of Jones' squad are homegrown players, the only exception being young New Zealander Michael Leitch. Kiwi-born Leitch has lived in Japan for eight years since the age of 15, attended high school in Japan and now tweets regularly in perfect Japanese with Chinese characters.
"There's no distinction between foreign and Japanese players. It's about picking the best players who can play the sort of rugby that we think can get us into the top 10 in the world," Jones emphasised.
"I want the Brave Blossoms to play a very attacking style, we'll be out to use the ball to create space and to control the defence. It'll be very good rugby to watch and we're going to win."
Himself half Japanese, Jones began his international coaching career with Japan in 1996 as assistant coach and, since then, has kept up strong relations with Japanese rugby through the Suntory club. He took up the head coach role at Suntory in 2010 and has since guided the club to three of the four domestic titles. In 2011/12 season Suntory won both the Japan Rugby Top League and the National Championships under his guidance.
Japan will start their campaign to win a fifth successive HSBC Asian 5 Nations title in Kazakhstan on 28 April before also facing matches against United Arab Emirates, Korea and Hong Kong.