TOKYO • With the weight of an expectant nation on their shoulders, Japan head into the Rugby World Cup opener today under arguably more pressure than any other team.
Fortunately, head coach Jamie Joseph could not have had a kinder match-up at the Tokyo Stadium - Russia, who are making only their second Finals appearance.
The former All-Blacks forward, however, has been quick to dismiss their favourites tag, pointing out that his 10th-ranked side managed to sneak only a 32-27 win over world No. 20 Russia last November.
"I never consider us to be the favourites, simply because… we have never been the favourites," he said during a pre-match press conference on Wednesday.
"We have got a lot of respect for Russia and we were very lucky to win the last time we played them.
"I will say that the players are really excited, they have been waiting a long time, like everybody has in Japan, for the day to arrive."
Japan were naive in a 41-7 loss to South Africa in their last warmup match, struggling to adapt to the Springboks' suffocating defensive game plan and leaving Joseph looking tactically outclassed.
Despite admitting it was a wake-up call, against Russia, he is likely to go back to the dynamic, attacking rugby that produced 14 tries and 109 points in three matches during their Pacific Nations Cup triumph last month.
Japan's World Cup win percentage - four wins in 28 matches.
Russia's World Cup win percentage - zero wins in four matches.
The 49-year-old has lofty ambitions and when he took on the challenge of coaching Japan in 2016 for this Rugby World Cup, he knew there was much more at stake than results on the field.
Hosting rugby's showpiece offers a prime opportunity to take the sport to a new level in an Asian market with vast potential for growth.
Japan is the first country outside of the traditional rugby strongholds to host the quadrennial Cup, which started in 1987 with Australia and New Zealand as co-hosts. It has also been hosted across Britain and Ireland, France and South Africa.
"We understand the responsibility that goes alongside being the host nation," Joseph said.
"I understand that it's crucial for the ongoing development of the game in Japan... The kids are going to be watching. And if we're playing really good attractive rugby and if we are winning, that's going to be an added bonus."
While rugby has been played in Japan for more than a century, it struggles to compete for popularity with baseball and football.
It remained largely an amateur sport played at the university level or by company teams until a professional league was created in 2003.
But when Joseph took over as coach from Eddie Jones, he inherited a team that had shown solid progress over recent years after years of disappointing results.
Under Jones, Japan pulled off a stunning 34-32 victory over two-time champions South Africa at the 2015 World Cup, a feat many consider to be the biggest upset in the history of the tournament.
Joseph has targeted a berth in the quarter-finals, hoping to advance from a pool that also includes No. 1-ranked Ireland, No. 7 Scotland and Samoa.
Russia captain Vasily Artemyev has warned Japan that his men are no pushovers, despite losing all four matches at the 2011 World Cup and also crumbling in their last warm-up match 85-15 to Italy.
"As strong as they are, Japan will have to bring their A-game to win," he said. "The pressure is on Japan to perform in front of their home crowd.
"In realistic terms, we may only have a 20 per cent chance but we will do our best definitely to spoil it for Japan."
ASSOCIATED PRESS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS
JAPAN V RUSSIA
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