x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Japan carry the hopes of Asia

If Japan do well this year then the world's most populous continent could get another spot in the rugby competition.

We could all do with Japan having a good Rugby World Cup. If they do, and allied to the fact the 2019 World Cup is being staged there, it could open up another qualifying berth for Asia for rugby's flagship competition.

The world's most populous continent could do with that sort of incentive to progress the game here.

According to some, the advance of Asia is inevitable. John Kirwan, the former New Zealand player who is now Japan's coach, recently hailed the continent as rugby's next power.

"You have to believe many other Asian nations will emerge as forces in world rugby in the next decade or so," the well-respected former All Black said recently.

His words seem to convey more hope than expectation, though. Asia has been the coming market for years, but it is further away in rugby than in any other major sport.

India has cornered cricket, but there are hundreds of years of history underlying that.

Japan and Korea, meanwhile, have been improving the continent's standing in football by gradual increments.

Rugby union, meanwhile, continues to drift with no measurable on-field improvement. For example, Japan, the continent's flag-bearers, have won just one World Cup match to date, despite having six cracks at it.

They embody the problems the International Rugby Board have in closing the gap between rugby's traditional nations, the next best, and then the rest.

Asia's top-ranked rugby nation has plenty going for it. For a start, there are the 122,598 registered players, which is just a little less than New Zealand, and around 35,000 more than Australia.

There is obviously a deep-rooted love for the game in the country. This World Cup could easily have been staged there - New Zealand controversially got the nod instead, but they were handed the 2019 event.

And judging by the sold-out Bledisloe Cup match staged in Tokyo in 2009, it is safe to assume it will be well attended.

Then there is the collective will to improve, and, vitally, the financial backing to do so.

The national team typically wants for little. When they beat the UAE 111-0 in May, each of their four-man management team had an Apple MacBook set up in front of them to track performances.

The contrast to the UAE was stark. The part-time coaches of Asia's third best nation, many of whose 3,700 registered players are ineligible for selection, went for the old-fashioned tactical advice option of waving their arms instead.

Since arriving in New Zealand, Japan have even wowed rugby's best-resourced nations with their attention to detail.

In addition to the four tonnes allowed by the tournament's official freight company, they have taken with them five more tonnes of excess baggage, including a hyperbaric chamber and massage tables.

Yet the cynics might suggest they have all the gear, but little idea.

Despite all the good work, they still have that solitary World Cup victory - against Zimbabwe in 1991 - despite having played in all the tournaments to date.

In France last time around, they lost a pool match against Australia 91-3. If they are still in excess of 100 points better than one of their nearest rivals in Asia, what does that say about Asia?

Despite it all, Japan have reason to believe they can start the revolution in New Zealand.

After claiming the Asian Five Nations with typical ease, they went on to win the Pacific Nations Cup, which also involves Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. They are now ranked No 13 in the world.

It is certainly a reason to be optimistic. If Asia is going to begin making inroads in rugby, now is the time to start.

pradley@thenational.ae