Japan out to set the record straight
On 20 April, Japan will begin their bid to qualify for Rugby World Cup 2015 with an HSBC Asian 5 Nations encounter against Top 5 newcomers the Philippines. The giants of Asian rugby have their sights set on an eighth straight appearance at the tournament – and one burning desire to quench.
Japan’s Rugby World Cup story begins, conveniently, at the beginning. As one of the 16 invited nations they contested the first tournament in 1987, losing narrowly to the USA before coming up short against England and Australia. Unfortunately for Japan, they also established a pattern that they are still striving to break.
They are the flag-bearers for Asian rugby and will host Rugby World Cup 2019, but their tournament ledger currently has only one notch in the win column. That will most certainly change in future as rugby continues to flourish at domestic and international level, but for now 14 October 1991 remains an important date.
The scene was a lively Ravenhill in Belfast, with Japan up against Zimbabwe. The African side were underdogs on the day, having shipped 50 points in four of their previous five Rugby World Cup matches. The 9,000 fans in attendance expected plenty of tries, and Japan delivered.
Leading the way were centre Eiji Kutsuki and wing Yoshihito Yoshida, both experienced cogs in the Japanese three-quarter line. Two years earlier the duo had been on the scoresheet as Japan ran five tries past a touring Scotland XV and they repeated the trick in Belfast.
Both men finished the match with braces, along with Yoshida’s wing partner Terunori Masuho. In all, Japan breached the Zimbabwean defence on nine occasions - setting the record for Rugby World Cup 1991 and ensuring that their opponents’ unwanted slate of half centuries extended into a fifth match.
Zimbabwe are yet to return to rugby’s grandest stage, but the same cannot be said of Japan. They have every right to be considered as Rugby World Cup regulars and, in reality, have been part of the furniture for some time. Their desire for another win will soon reach fever pitch though, particularly after their disappointment in France and New Zealand.
An old rivalry
Japan and Canada have a shared history dating back to 1930, when a touring Japanese side played British Columbia in Vancouver. Two years later, the Canucks travelled to Osaka and Tokyo for a two-Test tour, losing on both occasions. In 2007 and 2011, two of the rivalry’s most important chapters were written on the Rugby World Cup stage.
In 2007, Japan took aim at Canada in Bordeaux and led 5-0 at the break. Over 40 minutes later, Koji Taira crashed over to snatch a 12-12 draw. Japan had failed to end their losing run, but the celebrations reflected the joy of a late escape – not disappointment. That would change when the sides met four years later in Napier.
Earlier in the year, Japan had put their Pool A rivals on notice by winning a maiden IRB Pacific Nations Cup title, defeating both Fiji and Tonga along the way. Under coach John Kirwan – a Rugby World Cup winner with the All Blacks in 1987 – hopes were high for not only an end to their losing run, but also record showing as they lined up opposite Canada and Tonga, as well as New Zealand and France.
A promising start against France faded quickly for Kirwan’s men as the All Blacks cruised past 80 points and Tonga secured revenge for their narrow PNC defeat. Everything rested on Japan’s final match at McLean Park, but Canada were in no mood to provide an easy way out.
Disappointment at the death
Japan were in good shape at the break. Shota Horie’s early try was followed up seconds before the interval by Kosuke Endo, making it 17-7 as the teams headed to the sheds. The Canadians plotted an immediate comeback and secured it as Phil Mackenzie crossed three minutes into the second period, leaving James Arlidge and Ander Monro to battle it out for victory.
Arlidge added two penalties to take Japan 23-15 clear before Monro’s own personal acts of defiance – a 74th minute try and 78th minute penalty – levelled it at 23-23. That’s how it finished, and Japan’s wait for a win continued.
“I think the boys played their hearts out, I’m very proud of them,” Kirwan said afterwards. “They did a good job and a win would have been great. I thought we’d done enough to win the game. I’m obviously disappointed, I thought we had it.”
Kirwan has since been replaced by Eddie Jones, no stranger to the sharp end after two Rugby World Cup finals with Australia and South Africa, who will attempt to build on Japan’s obvious improvement in recent years.
During November they were in impressive form, defeating Romania and Georgia away, and will now tackle Hong Kong, Korea, the United Arab Emirates and the Philippines in the Asian 5 Nations Top 5. The road to Rugby World Cup 2015 starts here for the Brave Blossoms and their goal is plain to see.