Brave Blossoms look to RWC 2015 and beyond
When Thailand beat India 42-29 last weekend to gain promotion to Division 1 of the HSBC Asian 5 Nations, their dream of qualification for Rugby World Cup 2015 survived. But, for all Asian nations, the road to RWC 2015 has a big hurdle to overcome – Japan, the hosts of Rugby World Cup 2019.
The 2013 Division 1 champions will gain promotion to the HSBC Asian 5 Nations Top 5. The winner of the Top 5 will then qualify for England 2015 as Asia 1, with the runner-up entering the Repechage. That means there is only one guaranteed place available to the Asian teams, and the Brave Blossoms have won the Top 5 in each of the five years of its existence.
Japan have recorded 20 straight bonus-point victories, and in their four Top 5 matches this year scored 312 points and conceded just 11. It would be a major surprise if Japan were not representing Asia at Rugby World Cup 2015.
“We are learning how to manipulate defences and take teams into one area and then attack where they are not,” explained Japan coach Eddie Jones following a 67-0 win over Hong Kong which confirmed the Brave Blossoms as champions again.
When Jones took over the Japan national side, they were 15th in the IRB World Ranking. His aim is to get them into the top 10 and he has the pedigree to do it. The former Australia coach led the ACT Brumbies to the Super 12 title in 2001, the Wallabies to the Rugby World Cup Final in 2003 and was technical advisor to South Africa during their Rugby World Cup 2007 win. Also, Jones knows Japan well, thanks to family ties and a prior stint coaching there.
The challenges, however, are huge. Japan hasn’t won a Rugby World Cup match in 20 years of trying. Also, in Rugby World Cup 2011 a third of Japan’s 30-man squad were 'foreign' players. “That’s given the side muscle but we need to find players who are Japanese, that can play the way we want to play and also give dreams to young players in Japan,” says Jones.
Promising future for Japan
The financial backing is certainly there for Japanese rugby to succeed. The country’s club competition, the Top League, continues to attract the world’s best players. Jaque Fourie elected not to return to South Africa but to instead allegedly become the world’s highest paid player at the Kobe Steel Kobelco Steelers. And it was recently revealed that the All Blacks’ Sonny Bill Williams will reportedly earn $1.2 million to play 12 matches with the Panasonic Wild Knights.
The hope is the stars will bring in crowds. Jones is aware that there’s a battle for hearts and minds to be won in Japan when it comes to attracting spectators and making Rugby World Cup 2019 a big draw for the public.
“The Japan soccer side plays in front of 55,000. The national side is winning and they’re producing stars,” he recently said. “Kagawa’s now going to play for Manchester United. If you’re a young guy in Japan and you’re going to play soccer or rugby, you’re going to play soccer. We need to find young guys who can play (rugby) at the highest level, make the national side win and then we’ll have 30,000 people here.”
And young stars are coming through. Jones has pinpointed Atsushi Hiwasa of Suntory Sungoliath as a potential top class player, the scrum half who was named the HSBC Asian 5 Nations Emerging Player of the Year in 2011 and this year had a spell training with Top 14 side Stade Français.
Jones is certainly giving youth a chance. Take the example of Japan’s youngest ever international, 18-year-old wing Yoshikazu Fujita from Waseda University. He made his debut against the United Arab Emirates in May and scored six tries, an Asian 5 Nations Top 5 record.
Japan's Under 20s last month finished as runners-up to hosts USA in the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy, losing a tight final 37-33 in Salt Lake City. It was the third year in a row that Japan had reached the final only to miss out on a return to the IRB Junior World Championship. Add their mass participation programme across the country and the fact that rugby is being played in schools nationwide and the future looks promising.
“If we get involved in an arm wrestle we’re going to lose,” Jones recently said. “So we’ve got to use skill, we’ve got to be fitter than the other sides, we’ve got to be tactically smart and we’ve got to be able to play with speed. We’ve got to score tries. We’ve got to try and be the best attacking team in the world.”