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Covid legacy in the past as Japan heads to World Cup

SPOTLIGHT: Japan should have been riding a wave of momentum after hosting a successful 2019 World Cup but the Covid-19 pandemic has hampered efforts to build on their success.

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The Brave Blossoms beat Ireland and Scotland to reach the quarterfinals for the first time four years ago, sparking rugby-mania across a nation usually infatuated with baseball.

But the national team did not play a single game for 20 months afterwards as the government imposed strict pandemic travel restrictions, and the domestic league cancelled its 2020 season after only six rounds.

Japan head coach Jamie Joseph says his side are ready to face England, Argentina, Samoa and Chile in Pool D when this year’s World Cup kicks off in France.

“All the momentum that was created through the World Cup was just absolutely lost,” the New Zealander, who has coached Japan since 2016, told AFP.

“Momentum is like confidence when you’re building your team.

“We got a lot of confidence out of that World Cup and then, bang, we didn’t play again until June the next year. It was tough.”

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Japan have played fewer than 20 Tests since the last World Cup — far less than most of the world’s top sides.

Performances have been mixed, with Joseph’s team running New Zealand and France close at home but also suffering heavy away losses to England and Ireland.

Confidence is high ahead of the World Cup, with former captain Michael Leitch even saying he believes Japan can win the tournament.

Loose forward Kazuki Himeno, who starred for the Highlanders in Super Rugby in 2021, said Japan have “more strings to our bow” than in 2019.

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“We can attack with the ball and we’ve played more of a kicking game since last year, so we can do that too,” he said.

“We also have more depth, with lots of young players coming through. We can play well regardless of who is in the team.”

– High-profile league –

Himeno says the growing profile of Japan’s domestic league has helped boost the national team’s fortunes.

Many big-name international players have signed up since the last World Cup and more are to arrive next year, including All Blacks Beauden Barrett, Richie Mo’unga and Ardie Savea.

Australian flyhalf Bernard Foley, who won the Japan Rugby League One title with Kubota Spears this year, said the competition “has gone from strength to strength”.

“It’s probably a lot faster than Test match rugby,” he said after the final in May, which was watched by more than 40,000 spectators at Tokyo’s National Stadium.

Officials say they want to make the league the best in the world, but not everyone believes that is in the wider interests of Japanese rugby.

Joseph says the Sunwolves – the Tokyo-based team that competed in Super Rugby from 2016 before folding in 2020 – were instrumental in preparing his Japan players for the 2019 World Cup.

He believes there are “only a handful” of tough games in Japan’s domestic league, whereas “with Super Rugby for the Sunwolves, it was a handful every week”.

“That’s the clear difference – one prepares a team to win a domestic competition, and one was preparing the national team players to play in World Cups,” he said.

The national team is still popular among the Japanese public, and last year’s game against the All Blacks in Tokyo drew a crowd of more than 65,000.

They will not enjoy the same backing in France as they did in 2019, when fans packed out stadiums and fan zones and millions more watched on TV.

But Himeno believes the team are “playing at a higher level than in 2019”, and he refuses to use Covid disruption as an excuse.

“The pandemic gave us a chance to take a good look at our rugby and in that sense it did have a positive side,” he said.

“But that time is over, and we need to fix our eyes on what’s ahead of us and think only about that.”

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