Welcome to the RWC2019 Debriefs. The World Cup is now over and a new 4 year cycle begins, but the first stage of any cycle should be looking back at how things went – what went wrong and what went right – before looking on to how things go for the next cycle to ensure qualification to RWC2023 (if they haven’t automatically qualified) and to make sure they enter that tournament in peak form.
As I continue down the list alphabetically, today I will be looking at Japan.
As hosts, Japan automatically qualified for the tournament, however they would have also qualified through finishing 3rd in Pool B during the 2015 campaign.
Wins over Fiji, Tonga and the USA saw Japan finish top of the Pacific Nations Cup, but they came into the World Cup on the back of a 7-41 loss to South Africa.
- Pool Stages (1st in Pool A)
- Japan 30-10 Russia
- Japan 19-12 Ireland
- Japan 38-19 Samoa
- Japan 28-21 Scotland
- Japan 3-26 South Africa
Japanese rugby is far from my strength, so when I was predicting the pool standings, I did not expect them to make the top 2, largely based on the lack of success the Sunwolves (who were playing a lot of non-Japanese players). So imagine my surprise watching them in the pools.
The Brave Blossoms won fans in 2015 with their miraculous win over South Africa, and those fans were multiplying exponentially as this year’s tournament went on, courtesy of the way that they played the attractive high-tempo rugby that we all love to see, but also did it well enough to not just be competitive, but to win their games. Kotaru Matsushima made himself an instant celebrity with a hattrick in the tournament opener against Japan and carried on with his strong performances to finish the tournament with 5 tries, the bounce of a ball narrowly denying him a couple as well.
The back row were also sensational through the pools – despite my pick of players to watch, Amanaki Mafi missing most of the tournament through injury – with Michael Leitch, Lappies Labuschagné and Kazuki Himeno being some of their biggest stars with their incredible engines, hard carrying, endless tackling and numerous turnovers, while hooker Shota Horie threw his hat in the mix for being one of the best in the world at his position.
With each match, the Japanese tactics appeared to be all-but impossible for their opponents to deal with. Not even defensively solid Ireland could find a way to stop them, and but for the bounce of the ball, Japan’s winning margin could have been considerably more. And it wasn’t just the attack that caused problems, as they played a high-pressing defence that limited their opposition’s time on the ball and helped Japan stay on the front foot to win turnovers. Their pool victory – and subsequent first ever qualification for the knockout stages – was fully deserved.
Things were always going to get tougher entering the quarterfinals, as they faced South Africa. The match ahead of the tournament had already suggested that a repeat of “the Miracle of Brighton” was unlikely, and that soon proved the case as they were unable to cope with the incredible physicality of the Springboks. Credit to Japan: they held in it as long as they could, and their stars didn’t perform badly, they just had no answer for a Springbok pack that was putting heavy pressure on their lineout and powering through them at every opportunity. A disappointing end, but a tournament with so much to praise for Japan.
This is a very interesting time for Japan. The team is clearly on the up, and the World Cup will have created so many more rugby fans, but now Japan need to build off this. Key to that is what I discussed with Georgia: finding a way to get regular Test matches against Tier 1 opposition. Beating Scotland and Ireland was no fluke, but if the Brave Blossoms are to continue growing, they need to be added to one of the Tier 1 international tournaments – for geographical reasons I would say the Rugby Championship.
Beyond that, though, they need to keep developing the talent. While stars like Timothy Lafaele, Matsushima and Himeno should have another World Cup in them, there will be question marks surrounding a number of the other big names from this squad. Horie, Leitch, Labuschagné, fly half Yu Tamura, and winger Lomano Lemeki are already in their 30s, while star winger Kenki Fukuoka is stepping away from rugby to become a doctor. After the hard work Japan have put in to get international recognition, they need to make sure they have the quality coming through to avoid a massive drop-off the moment their aging stars disappear, as arguably happened with Italy. And herein lies the issue as the Sunwolves have arguably not been used right, with so many foreign players filling the squad instead of Japanese players, and now they are entering their last season before being cut from Super Rugby. Meanwhile the Top League is seeing an influx of former internationals from other countries coming in for one last big paycheck before they retire, which may be bringing some extra quality to the league to learn off, but is also blocking off spaces for homegrown talent to come through.
Japan needs to look at its domestic game to ensure the talent is able to make its way up to the national team, while the national team needs to build on their success with regular Tier 1 matches. If this can happen, Japan are in a great spot to remain competitive for the coming years.