Japan handed historic last-eight target in rugby

Japan's national rugby team head coach Jamie Joseph takes part in a press conference to announce the 31-man squad for the Rugby World Cup in Tokyo on Aug 29, 2019.
Japan's national rugby team head coach Jamie Joseph takes part in a press conference to announce the 31-man squad for the Rugby World Cup in Tokyo on Aug 29, 2019.PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO • Japan coach Jamie Joseph promised the hosts would "give 150 per cent" to hit their target of reaching the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals after naming his 31-man squad yesterday.

The Brave Blossoms will be at full strength in the Sept 20 curtain-raiser against Russia in Tokyo after talismanic captain Michael Leitch returned from injury at the recent Pacific Nations Cup.

"The team have set a goal of making the top eight for the first time in the history of Japanese rugby," Joseph told reporters.

"The staff and players will give 150 per cent. We're under no illusions how difficult that is but it's definitely our goal. The moment of truth will be upon us shortly."

He sees a "winning mentality" in his team which, coupled with home advantage, would make Japan a dangerous team.

Japan are the only Asian team to have played in the Rugby World Cup but have not made it past the pool stage in their past eight appearances since the quadrennial showpiece's inception in 1987.

Joseph, a former All Black, believes that his team are now playing a "good brand of rugby".

  • JAPAN SQUAD FOR RUGBY WORLD CUP 2019

  • BACKS

    Kaito Shigeno, Fumiaki Tanaka, Yutaka Nagare, Yu Tamura, Rikiya Matsuda, Kenki Fukuoka, Ataata Moeakiola, Lomano Lemeki, William Tupou, Ryoto Nakamura, Timothy Lafaele, Kotaro Matsushima, Ryohei Yamanaka.

    FORWARDS

    Michael Leitch (captain), Keita Inagaki, Yusuke Kizu, Jiwon Koo, Isileli Nakajima, Asaeli Valu, Takuya Kitade, Atsushi Sakate, Shota Horie, Luke Thompson, Wimpie van der Walt, Uwe Helu, James Moore, Hendrik Tui, Yoshitaka Tokunaga, Pieter Labuschagne, Kazuki Himeno, Amanaki Mafi.

He said: "Our game is based around speed, skill and structure.

"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 per cent higher than our matches. I think that's our key weapon."

Japan famously won three games at the 2015 World Cup under Eddie Jones, including an astonishing 34-32 victory over two-time champions South Africa.

They came close to reaching the last eight, equalling the Springboks and Scotland on three wins. But they failed to advance having missed out on bonus points, awarded for four tries in a match or losing by fewer than eight points.

Japan, who are at their highest ranking of ninth and captured their third Pacific Nations title, are grouped with Ireland, Scotland, Russia and Samoa in Pool A.

They will be boosted by their success at the Pacific Nations, where they beat Fiji (34-21), Tonga (41-7) and the United States (34-20).

Leitch's return from a lengthy injury also helps Japan's cause and Joseph insisted his men would fear no team at the World Cup.

"I believe we have improved," he said. "When I arrived in Japan, the question was thrown at me how I could take the team to the next level after the success Eddie had.

"Four years later we have played every tier-one team and had four seasons of Super Rugby," added Joseph, who last year doubled up as coach of Tokyo-based Super Rugby side Sunwolves and led them to their best season haul of three wins.

"That's helped toughen up the players. I can confidently say we are one team as we go into the World Cup."

Japan will play a warm-up match on Sept 6 against the Springboks, their first meeting since the World Cup four years ago.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 30, 2019, with the headline 'Japan handed historic last-eight target in rugby'. Print Edition | Subscribe