On the 20th of September 2019 Japanese rugby will be bracing itself for the biggest competition in rugby union, the 2019 Rugby World Cup will the first tournament hosted by a Tier 2 nation and Japan will be looking to add their own unique spice to this huge spectacle.
The Brave blossoms have been placed in Pool A and will face Russia in the opening match of the tournament, Japan will also play against Ireland, Scotland and Samoa in a very challenging group.
Expectations will be high for Japan considering their successful campaign at the previous world cup, Japan became the first ever country to win three pool stage matches and still not qualify for the quarter-finals. The Brave Blossoms claimed victory against Samoa, USA and South Africa but a heavy defeat to Scotland damaged their progress.
Japan are the most successful rugby team in the East winning the Asia Rugby Championship 12 consecutive times and they have won the competition on 25 occasions since its creation in 1969. Japan are a dominant force in Asian Rugby but have struggled outside of the continent, they have only won 7 matches against tier 1 nations in over 50 years. The Japanese have also won the IRB Pacific Nations cup on two occasions in 2011 and 2014.
John Kirwan was Japan’s head coach during their triumph in 2011.
Before Kirwan’s appointment in 2007 the Japan rugby union had struggled to find a long-term head coach, from 1997 to 2000 Japan were coached by Seiji Hirao who led the Japanese into the 1999 Rugby World Cup. Japan were placed in Pool D and went up against Wales, Samoa and Argentina, the Japanese played well but failed to win any of their 3 matches. Seiji Hirao resigned a year later and went on to coach Kobelco Steelers in the Top League.
His successor was Shogo Mukai who led Toshiba Brave Lupus to three Top League titles from 1997 to 1999, Mukai was appointed in 2001 and his reign concluded at the end of the 2003 Rugby World Cup. History repeated itself for Japan in 2003 with the Brave Blossoms failing once again to win a single match in their group. Despite playing an exciting brand of rugby the Japanese still fell short against France, Scotland, Fiji and the USA and finished bottom of Pool B.
Mitsutake Hagimoto was named as Mukai’s replacement however Hagimoto’s reign proved to be a disaster. Highlights of his tenure included a 100-8 loss to Scotland and a 98-0 drubbing against Wales. Two heavy defeats against Ireland in June 2005 was enough to decide Hagimoto’s fate, He lasted just over a year in the role earning 5 wins out of his 15 matches in charge, he is Japan’s least successful head coach in the professional era.
Japan’s backs coach Jean-Pierre Elissalde was promoted to head coach and his tenure was even shorter. Despite only winning one game in six matches the Frenchman was still expected to guide Japan into the 2007 Rugby World Cup. Before Japan’s autumn tour in 2006 Elissalde was unexpectedly sacked and his assistant Osamu Ota took temporary charge of the team, Elissalde had accepted a job with Top 14 club Bayonne but he forget to inform the Japanese rugby union of his new job.
John Kirwan was initially an advisor to Osamu Ota before he eventually took over as head coach before the start of the 2007 Rugby World Cup. For the 4th consecutive world cup the Japanese failed to win a single match, however they did earn a 12-12 draw against Canada and a losing bonus point against Fiji.
During Kirwan’s four-year tenure he led Japan to 13th in IRB world rankings (A record at the time) and won 58% of his 55 matches in charge. Kirwan designed his game plan around Japan’s strengths (agility and speed) and focused on playing an attractive style of rugby which suited the smaller size of Japan’s players.
However Kirwan was heavily criticised for his reliance on Kiwi and Tongan players instead of selecting native Japanese players. Kirwan’s reign ended in disappointment with the Japanese failing to win of their matches at the 2011 Rugby World Cup, Kirwan resigned after the tournament. Eddie Jones who was coaching Suntory Sungoliath at the time was named as Japan’s next head coach, his two-year spell with Suntory was highly successful winning one Top League and two All Japan Championships.
Eddie Jones set about changing a lot of Kirwan’s policies firstly by selecting predominantly Japanese players, his first game in charge saw 10 players make their debut for Japan against Kazakhstan. Jones also had the aim of getting the Japanese into the top 10 of the IRB world rankings for the very first time and set about making them more competitive against the Tier-1 nations in Northern and Southern Hemisphere rugby.
Eddie Jones wanted to create an identity for this Japanese team and instill a burning desire to win every match which in the past had been missing.
“The biggest challenge was find a way to play rugby effectively with smaller players and secondly, we had to change their mindset. It took about two or three years to get there through hard work, hard training but thankfully we’ve managed to change that considerably over the last period of time”
“It was a case of being proud of the way we play and if we play that way well then we got as good a change as anyone to beat other teams”
In the space of three years Jones had guided Japan to 9th in the IRB world rankings, won a second Pacific Nations cup and recorded victories over Wales, Italy and of course South Africa. Japan’s victory against South Africa was described as one of the biggest upsets in the history of the Rugby World Cup and the entire sport in general, Karne Hesketh’s last-minute try to the win the match will go down in rugby folklore.
Eddie Jones left his post after the 2015 Rugby World Cup winning 71% of his matches in charge and achieving all of his main targets in the process. Jamie Joseph who guided the Highlanders to their first ever Super rugby title in 2015 was named as his replacement.
During his first 2 years at the helm Joseph has guided Japan to victories over Georgia, Fiji, Tonga and Italy whilst also winning a twelfth consecutive Asia Rugby Championship, Japan also claimed a 23-23 draw against France which was the first time both countries had drawn.
Jamie Joseph also took the reins of the Sunwolves in Super Rugby whilst still being in charge of Japan. The Sunwolves struggled badly in their first two seasons of Super rugby winning 3 matches out of a possible 30 while only earning a combined 21 points over the two years, Joseph took over the Sunwolves for their third season of Super Rugby.
His appointment benefited the Sunwolves greatly with the franchise achieving their most successful season yet defeating the Queensland Reds, Stormers and Bulls whilst also earning bonus points against the Lions and Brumbies. The Sunwolves finished the season with 14 points and the franchise proved it could be competitive in Super Rugby, Jamie Joseph left the Sunwolves at the end of the season to focus on Japan’s preparation for the 2019 World Cup.
The Sunwolves provide a clear example of the massive progression Japanese rugby has achieved in recent years and with enough time hopefully the franchise can develop into a real force in Super Rugby. A total of 30 players who represent the Sunwolves have also earned international caps for Japan, so the Japanese will have the added benefit of continuity and familiarity between players on and off the rugby field.
I think the Japanese will struggle to qualify from Pool A next year however I believe they will provide a stern test for any team that faces them in the group stages. Of course Japan will also have the added benefit of home support which will surely give them a huge mental and physical boost during all of their pool matches.
Japanese rugby is clearly moving in a positive direction and the 2019 Rugby World Cup will be the perfect opportunity for Japan to show off how far they have come. Personally I can’t wait.
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