The 2023 Rugby World Cup will start on September 8 in France. The Japanese team, which reached the quarterfinals for the first time in the previous edition of the competition, has been improving its game with its sights set on victory under the direction of head coach Jamie Joseph. Can Japan, which is part of the High-Performance Union with the rest of the best countries in this sport, surprise the world again?
Objective: from the quarterfinals to victory
Rugby fever broke out in the Japanese archipelago in the autumn of 2019. It was the first time that the World Cup was held in the country and in Asia. The national team won group A of the first division, winning all four games and defeating teams as powerful as Ireland and Scotland, thanks to which they reached the quarterfinals for the first time in history.
The One Team, captained by the New Zealander Michael Leitch and made up of players from various origins (Australia, South Africa, Tonga, Samoa, South Korea, etc.), conquered the hearts of the fans, becoming a model of respect for diversity that It’s so in vogue right now. According to organizers, 50,000 people gathered to watch the parade that took place after the tournament in Marunouchi, a neighbourhood in central Tokyo. The national rugby team left a notable impact as an entity that transcends the world of sport.
Four years have passed since that. We are back in World Cup year. Japan faces this edition from a different position than the one it occupied. His first quarterfinal, which he won in 2019, is no longer an achievement but a quota to meet. The first to have publicly proclaimed it are the players themselves, who have declared that they are going for the title on multiple occasions since the training camp began, less than three months before the competition.
Will there be those who call it bragging? So far the winners of the Rugby World Cup have been New Zealand and South Africa on three occasions each, Australia on two and England on one; nobody else. But the players of the Japanese team do not talk just to talk. At the training camp, they began on June 12 in Urayasu (Chiba Prefecture), they were heard commenting that it was the hardest training they had done to date, referring to the tackling practice they underwent every morning during an hour in a tent set up in a corner of the field.
The program of John Donahue, a specialist in jujutsu and other martial arts, and a seasoned coach in the Australian 13-a-side rugby league, consists of almost an hour straight of repeated tackling and contact, without breaks to rest or hydrate. During the intervals, a co-responsibility system is followed in which the entire team is penalized if one of the players shows a “weak posture”, such as resting their hands on their knees, hips or on their head. It is a training with a spartan approach that could be considered anachronistic from a security and regulatory compliance point of view.
“If we want to win a world competition, we cannot afford to lose in contact,” argues national team director Fujii Yūichirō to justify the objective of the special training. In 2019, the Japanese ranked among the top eight teams by adapting their strategy to the opponent, with a versatile offence that used sophisticated attacks and deployed carefully designed scrums. However, in the quarterfinals, they suffered a complete defeat against South Africa, who ended up winning the title. They needed to become players with a robust physique who could endure the month and a half of hand-to-hand combat without getting worn out and reach the end of the marathon in top shape.
The evolution of the national team in four years
In the world of rugby, there is an almost protocol hierarchy. Every year the European teams from the Six Nations (England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France and Italy) and the four southern hemisphere powers that compete in the Rugby Championship (New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina) form Tier 1 ( tier means ‘level’), a group that enjoys priority in matchmaking, among other aspects. On the other hand, Japan, the so-called island countries (Fiji, Samoa and Tonga) and Europeans outside the six mentioned above (such as Georgia or Romania) are relegated to Tier 2 and rarely play against those from the first in test matches.
For the Japanese team to expand its experience, create a solid squad and increase its competitive capacity in the context of rugby’s inflexible structure, the opportunities for it to face the best must be multiplied. Reaching the quarterfinals in the 2019 World Cup should have been the springboard to achieve it, but starting in 2020, international matches began to be cancelled due to the pandemic.
So, Japan hasn’t improved at all in these years? It is a question that offers two answers. The Japanese suffered a resounding defeat in the first match against France (23 to 42) but managed to finish 15 to 20 in the second, in July 2022, while, in October, they finished 31 to 38 against New Zealand. The fact that they managed to come back – even if they didn’t win – on just one occasion or were so close to turning the score around against two of the best in the world shows how they have improved their level.
Twenty-year-old Warner Dearns, who plays on the second line and transferred from Ryūtsū Keizai University’s Kashiwa High School team to Brave Lupus Tokyo, scored a goal against his native New Zealand team. And Kobe Steelers flyhalf Lee Seung-sin, 21, led the game against France.
In 2023 Osada Tomoki, a Saitama Wild Knights centre who won the League One Rookie of the Year award, and Fukui Shōta, who joined the same team after finishing high school and is now in his fifth year, will also make their national team debuts. The development of these young people is rapidly fueling the power of the national team.
On the other hand, it must be taken into account that the national team has not won a single match against a top-level team since the 2019 Rugby World Cup. A probable cause is the disappearance of the Sunwolves, that is, the lack of reinforcement. The Sunwolves, made up of candidates for the Japanese national team, were formed to compete in Super Rugby, and since 2016 they have played games almost weekly against New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina to gain experience, but they ceased their activity in 2020, in part. due to the influence of the pandemic.
League One, which grew out of the Top League in 2022, attracts more stars from other countries and holds more matches than before, but head coach Jamie Joseph points out: “It has nothing to do with how tough the teams are. matches against foreign teams.” In November 2022, the team toured Europe and lost 13-52 against England, who will be in the same group at the World Cup. They were also defeated by France 17-35 on opposing territory, despite being just 5 points behind when they met in Tokyo in July. The truth is that it has not yet reached the point of being able to compete consistently against the first teams.
The maturation of Japanese rugby
All in all, Japan’s position in the world of rugby has changed. In May 2023, World Rugby announced that it was recognizing him as a member of the High Performance Union (HPU). Thus, it becomes one of eleven components of the union, along with the 10 that make up Tier 1 . However certain media outlets were quick to announce that Japan had entered Tier 1.
The HPU, in reality, is an association with recognized solvency in every sense, from the results accumulated by the powerful teams in each category (men’s and women’s rugby 15 and 7) to regulatory compliance and financing. As Iwabuchi Kensuke, CEO of the Japan Rugby Football Union, says: “It’s not just about the talent of the national team’s players.” World Rugby itself is disassociating itself from the exclusive tiering classification. Japan has earned recognition as a member with a mature rugby culture that does not depend on whether it loses or wins on the field at any given time.
Despite everything, the men’s rugby 15s World Cup continues to be a showcase where the global capacity of each country is exposed.
“In Japanese rugby, the style of play changes depending on the opponent. “It surprised me,” declared Pieter Labuschagné in 2018, when he was playing with the Sunwolves. The South African flanker participated in the 2019 World Cup. While the Europeans try to dominate the opponent with set pieces by exploiting their physical strength, the teams in the southern hemisphere try to overwhelm them with quick attacks by moving the ball. Japanese rugby does not fit into those patterns.
Both in the 2015 World Cup, with Eddie Jones, and in 2019, in which Jamie Joseph led the team to the quarterfinals, Japan showed off a very own and versatile game, unique in its kind, which allowed it to beat very strong teams and earned him recognition in the rugby world. Against South Africa and Ireland, who dominate set pieces, he used effective kicks to gain advantage by creating unstructured situations; Against Samoa, who excels in this second type of play, they did not move the ball and put pressure on set pieces.
What type of rugby will Japan surprise the world within the next World Cup, which begins in France on September 8?
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(Translated into English from the original in Spanish.”Nippon.com”)