World Cup Preview: Japan
POOL A SPOTLIGHT: Japan coach Jamie Joseph admits his side can no longer fly under the radar, but has warned that his super-fit players will run teams ragged at the global showpiece.
The host side kicks off the tournament against Russia in Tokyo on September 20 before facing Ireland, Samoa and Scotland – and Joseph is backing the Brave Blossoms to reach the quarterfinals for the first time.
“There are huge expectations now,” said Joseph, who inherited a Japan side who won three matches at the 2015 World Cup under Eddie Jones, including a stunning 34-32 upset over two-time champions South Africa.
“We understand the responsibility that goes along with being the host nation and we’re very well prepared,” added the former All Black.
“The team has set a goal of making the top eight and we will give 150 percent. We’re under no illusions how difficult that is but it’s definitely our target.”
Joseph has put his players through a series of punishing training camps in Miyazaki, southern Japan, and expects their superior fitness to be a “key weapon” at a World Cup where extreme humidity is likely to play a part.
“Our game is based around speed, skill and structure,” said Joseph.
“But the key difference this year is we are fit enough now to play that game. We’re training at a level of intensity that’s 25 percent higher than our matches – I think that’s our key weapon.”
Once World Cup pushovers who conceded a record 145 points against New Zealand, Japan have the fear factor after their heroics four years ago.
Jones created the blueprint for their success with a brutal fitness regimen that bordered on abuse, according to several players.
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But the way their high-energy game put the squeeze on South Africa in Brighton four years ago before delivering the coup de grace with a try late into added time, changed the perception of Japanese rugby.
“We are not going to beat tier-one teams by a huge margin,” shrugged Joseph.
“We will get one or two opportunities and we need to execute them under pressure.”
While Japan can no longer rely on the element of surprise, they will look to suffocate their Pool A rivals.
Their final group game against Scotland in Yokohama on October 13 offers Japan the opportunity to avenge a defeat that ultimately cost them a place in the knockout phase in 2015.
“The intangible asset we have is that we’re very tight as a group,” said Joseph, who played for the All Blacks at the 1995 World Cup, included that 145-point mauling in Bloemfontein, before later going on to play for Japan.
“Of all the teams I have coached, I have always tried to create a group that will do anything to achieve their goal. I can confidently say this group is aligned and ready to go.”
Japan’s talismanic captain Michael Leitch is daring to dream beyond even the quarterfinals.
“Once we get out of the [pool phase] we’ve either got New Zealand or South Africa – and we’re not going to lay down for them either,” he told AFP.
“Because we did well at the last World Cup there’s a lot of expectation. But I don’t see that as pressure. We’ve got a job to do and losing is not one of them.”
Player to watch:
Michael Leitch. Return from a lengthy injury lay-off of their talismanic captain, a veteran of the famous victory over the Springboks four years ago, gives the hosts a timely lift.
Aim for the tournament:
“We’ve set a goal of making the quarterfinals for the first time. We’re under no illusions how difficult that is, but we will give 150 percent,” coach Jamie Joseph.
Population: 126 million
Coach: Jamie Joseph (New Zealand, since 2016)
Number of registered players: 108,796
World Rugby ranking: 10 (September 9, 2019)
World Cup record:
Pool matches (all times GMT):
Japan v Russia
Date: September 20
Japan v Ireland
Date: September 28
Japan v Samoa
Date: October 5
Venue: Toyota City
Japan v Scotland
Date: October 13
Backs: Kotaro Matsushima (Sungoliath), Ryohei Yamanaka (Steelers), Kenki Fukuoka (Wild Knights), Lomano Lemeki (Heat), Ataata Moeakiola (Steelers), Timothy Lafaele (Spears), Ryoto Nakamura (Sungoliath), William Tupou (Red Sparks), Rikiya Matsuda (Wild Knights), Yu Tamura (Eagles), Yutaka Nagare (Sungoliath), Kaito Shigeno (Verblitz), Fumiaki Tanaka (Eagles).
Forwards: Keita Inagaki (Wild Knights), Yusuke Kizu (Verblitz), Koo Ji-won (Heat), Isileli Nakajima (Steelers), Asaeli Ai Valu (Wild Knights), Shota Horie (Wild Knights), Takuya Kitade (Sungoliath), Atsushi Sakata (Wild Knights), Uwe Helu (Yamaha Jubilo), James Moore (Blues), Luke Thompson (Liners), Wimpie van der Walt (Red Hurricanes), Kazuki Himeno (Verblitz), Pieter Labuschagne (Spears), Michael Leitch (captain), Amanaki Mafi (Red Hurricanes), Yoshitaka Tokunaga (Toshiba Brave Lupus), Hendrik Tui (Sungoliath)