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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Coach Eddie Jones dismisses claims Japan is a ‘joke side’ ahead of Rugby World Cup

Japan has not won a Rugby World Cup match in 24 years. So the question remains: Can Asia’s best side hold ground on the world stage? Paul Radley reports.
Japan's Michael Leitch, left, works his way around Fiji's Joshua Mataveis during the first half of a Pacific Nations Cup rugby match Wednesday, July 29, 2015, in Toronto. Jon Blacker/The Canadian Press
Japan's Michael Leitch, left, works his way around Fiji's Joshua Mataveis during the first half of a Pacific Nations Cup rugby match Wednesday, July 29, 2015, in Toronto. Jon Blacker/The Canadian Press

Japan need broad shoulders to carry the burden of the rugby hopes of the world’s most populated continent.

So far, though, it feels like those expectations have been lumped onto the impish scrum-half of a school under 14 side, rather than the prop forward of the men’s first XV.

No wins in 24 years of Rugby World Cups. Only one ever, against Zimbabwe in 1991, plus a couple of draws. It is a meagre return for a country with such deep pockets.

If the past is pitiful, the future looks muddled. The showy new national stadium in Tokyo, which was planned as the centre piece for the next Rugby World Cup, has been scrapped with only four years to go till kick off. World Rugby have suggested South Africa are on call, should the next tournament need to be relocated.

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And what of the present? With an opening fixture against two-time winners South Africa this weekend, Japan coach Eddie Jones has acknowledged he has been asked whether his side will be able to keep the score to less than 100.

“I haven’t spent the last four years to be treated like a joke,” Jones was quoted as saying in London this week. “We are not here to be treated as a joke side, we are here to win games.”

When Jones replaced John Kirwan in 2011, he was bullish about bringing about several changes to Japanese rugby. Primarily, the former Australia coach, whose mother and wife are both Japanese, wanted to celebrate at least one victory at a World Cup.

He also wanted to develop a style of play based on indigenous players, rather than expatriates. Already, he is one down on that count. Going into the World Cup, Japan have a New Zealand-born captain and a centre who used to play for Australia in rugby league, among other overseas players.

Still, at least hopes of success on the field have been buoyed by the recent past. They beat Wales and Italy at home last year, while their run-in to the competition has included wins against Uruguay and Georgia.

Asia needs its most powerful rugby nation to do something at this competition in England. Japan are, by a considerable distance, its leading power.

When they play in continental competitions, it is their opponents who have to worry about damage limitation and find ways of keeping the score to under 100, not them.

That is part of the problem. With no competition worthy of the description among their local rivals, Japan’s development has been stunted.

In 2011, just before the last World Cup, the UAE were ranked as Asia’s third-best side. Japan beat them 111-0 in a Test match in Dubai.

Asia Rugby has tried its best. Yet it was forced into a root-and-branch revamp of its competition structure last season, after years of trying a five-nation top division with a well of financial support from its sponsor, HSBC.

In 2011, Kirwan made some bold predictions for Asian rugby, suggesting it represented the sport’s future.

“You have to believe many other nations will emerge as forces in rugby over the next decade or so,” he said.

Those unspecified nations need to get moving if they are going to make good on Kirwan’s forecast. Particularly because at least one extra Asian nation will be entered into the World Cup when Japan host the event in 2019.

Given how much Japan themselves have struggled on the big stage, it is fair to assume the next-best will find the going extremely tough.

“Competing in World Cups so far, Japan have not had a lot of success, maybe because the standard of competition in Asia is not that good,” said Ghaith Jalajel, the West Asia development consultant for Asia Rugby.

“South Korea and Hong Kong are catching up, but not as quickly as people would like them to. Having them host the competition in 2019, the best thing about it is Asia will have two teams in the World Cup.

“That has never happened before, and it is really exciting. Hopefully in four years’ time, teams like Hong Kong and Korea will be in a better position.”

pradley@thenational.ae

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