TOKYO, 18 Sep - Analysis of Japan, in Pool A with Ireland, Scotland, Samoa and Russia. They play Russia in the opening game of Rugby World Cup 2019 in Tokyo on Friday.
Japan play at a rare intensity which has consistently been too much for Tier 2 opponents over the past three years.
- Even in defeats by Tier 1 teams, Japan have been impressive. In 2018 they lost by 20 points against England and by three against Italy, a week after beating the Italians in Oita.
- To progress, they have to be victorious against fellow Tier 2 sides Russia and Samoa and pick off one of either Scotland or Ireland. To guarantee that they do not end up in the same predicament as four years ago - three wins, yet no quarter-final spot - they will need to beat both Ireland and Scotland.
Japan play very quickly. They rarely choose to get bogged down in rucking, preferring to pass and kick the ball down the field. This means that they have the highest ball-in-play time for any team in Tier 2. That exhausts the less fit Tier 2 sides and this year they have won the second halves of matches by a cumulative 46 points to 40, and 19 of those were conceded against South Africa.
In Michael Leitch and Shota Horie, they have two forwards who can play like backs, adding to their free-flowing game. Look out for Horie setting up camp on the wing and using his power and speed to scare opposition backs.
When Japan beat South Africa in Brighton in 2015 their scrum was a stable platform capable of delivering quick, attacking ball. The 95 per cent success rate for 2018 is great, but cracks have started to appear this year against both Fiji and Tonga. Their scrum needs to be serviceable in a pool which features Samoa (best scrummaging team), Ireland (5th best), and Russia (7th best).
For counter-attacking teams like Japan, every weak kick is a try-scoring opportunity. When teams kick well, as South Africa did this year, that source of tries dries up. In 2018, 36 per cent of Japan’s tries came from either a turnover or a kick. Kick well and support your runners and you remove a big reason for Japan’s success.
Japan score the same number of tries against Tier 1 opposition as they do against Tier 2 opposition. The difference is that they concede around five times as many tries against the best in the world.
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"I'm expecting to see Japan drop more players into the backfield to negate kicks early in the phase count. Of course, by doing that they risk conceding line breaks with fewer defenders in the defensive line to stop the ball carriers."
Vital statistics (All Test Matches 2018)
World Ranking: 10th
Average minutes possession per game: 18m 38s (8th best of the 20 teams at RWC 2019)
Scrum success: 95% (6th)
Lineout success: 89% (4th)
Goal-kicking success: 69% (19th)
Average tries scored: 3.5 (9th)
Seconds per pass/ruck/kick: 6.9 (5th)/12.4 (16th)/39.9 (2nd)
Passes per ruck: 1.8 (5th)