Eddie Jones sees the forthcoming Asian Rugby Championship (ARC) as a key “stepping stone” in the Brave Blossoms’ preparations for Rugby World Cup 2015.
Formerly known as the Asian 5 Nations, the Asian Rugby Championship is to be contested by the three dominant teams in the region – reigning champions Japan, Korea and Hong Kong, in April and May.
After this weekend’s Tokyo Sevens has concluded, Japan’s 31-man squad will meet up for a training camp ahead of their first match against Korea in Incheon on 18 April. They then play Hong Kong in Tokyo on 2 May and Korea in Fukuoka a week later before closing out their campaign in Hong Kong on 23 May.
“The Asian Rugby Championship is an important tournament for us because if we can establish the base of the team and hopefully get a bit of confidence, we can use that as a stepping stone to more difficult Test matches as we move towards the Rugby World Cup 2015,” Jones said.
The remainder of Japan’s schedule before RWC 2015 involves three matches in the World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup in July and August, a double-header against Uruguay and a final warm-up against Georgia on 5 September – a fortnight before their Rugby World Cup campaign gets underway against South Africa in Brighton.
""Our target is to make the quarter-finals at the Rugby World Cup.""
Japan are currently 11th in the World Rugby Rankings, immediately below their Pool B opponents Scotland and Samoa and five places above the USA.While beating the Springboks would be beyond most Japanese supporter’s wildest dreams, Samoa, Scotland and USA could be theirs for the taking if the Brave Blossoms can replicate the sort of form that took them on a record 10-match winning run in 2014.
Despite being tournament ever-presents, Japan have only beaten Zimbabwe on the game’s biggest stage, at Ravenhill in Belfast in 1991, and have drawn against Canada in the last two Rugby World Cups.
But, under Jones’s watchful eye, they appear to have their best chance yet of laying their 24-year wait for a win to rest.
“Our target is to make the quarter-finals at the Rugby World Cup,” Jones said. “Like any tier two country we don’t have great depth in our squad so it is important we keep our best players on the field. If we can do that then I think we ‘ve got a very good squad of players for the Rugby World Cup and I feel confident we can do well.”
Jones will use the Asian Rugby Championship to blood some new players in what will effectively be an A team line-up.
With Michael Leitch one of the six players away on Super Rugby duty, Jones said a new stand-in captain would be named at the team's training camp in Miyazaki.
"Of course we want to win the ARC, but everything we do is geared towards the World Cup," Jones said. "We may do a full fitness session the day before an ARC game and struggle in the game. But if that is what we have to do to be at our peak for the World Cup then that is what we will do."
Yoshikazu Fujita’s try-scoring exploits helped Japan briefly become one of the top 10 ranked teams in the world in 2014, and the 21-year-old speedster is quick to credit Jones for their success.
“Eddie is great, he has brought the winning culture, the spirit of winning to the Japanese team,” said the winger, who has scored 22 tries from just 18 test match appearances.
“He looks at our skills and our techniques very carefully. His eyes are constantly open and he doesn't miss any detail. With that we have been able to improve. I am very excited for Rugby World Cup 2015.”