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Ex-All Black wants Fiji, Japan to be added to 2021 Rugby Championship

By Alex McLeod

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Former All Blacks great Sir John Kirwan has called for Fiji and Japan to be included in this year’s edition of the Rugby Championship.

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Speaking on Sky Sport‘s The Breakdown on Monday, Kirwan said the competition, which is organised by SANZAAR and pits the All Blacks, Wallabies, Springboks and Los Pumas against each other, needs Fiji and Japan “right now”.

“The Championship needs Japan, Fiji in it right now. This year,” Kirwan, who coached Japan between 2007 and 2011, said.

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John Kirwan on why Fiji and Japan must be added to the Rugby Championship immediately
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John Kirwan on why Fiji and Japan must be added to the Rugby Championship immediately

Kirwan’s claim was supported by Sky Sport broadcaster Ken Laban, who said it isn’t too late for the Flying Fijians and Brave Blossoms to be added to the 2021 Rugby Championship, which kicks-off next month.

“Firstly, JK’s [Kirwan’s] 100 percent right. We need to have Japan involved, and we need to have Fiji involved,” Laban told The Breakdown.

“Fijian Drua are coming into Super Rugby, it’s going to do amazing things for their national team because, in the future, the bulk of the Fijian national team is going to come out of that Fijian Drua side.

“So, they’re going to be playing the top Super Rugby franchises in Australia and New Zealand, and they’re only going to become more competitive.

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“Already we’ve seen in Japan, ahead of their professional competition in 2022, the quality of the coaches, the quality of the players, of the signings that they have up there, they could be very competitive.

“JK’s 100 percent right. It’s not too late to put them in the Championship right now, and I agree. It would be wonderful.”

Kirwan’s and Laban’s comments come after Fiji impressed in a 57-23 defeat to the All Blacks at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin last weekend.

Although the scoreline blew out in the final quarter of the match as the visitors suffered the repercussions of limited preparation due to quarantine restrictions, Fiji – ranked 11th in the world – kept in touch of the All Blacks for much of the contest.

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After taking an early lead through the boot of Ben Volavola, the Fijians trailed by only 10 points at half-time and scored a penalty try with 20 minutes to play that brought them to within eight points of the hosts.

A lack of conditioning and team cohesion eventually wore Vern Cotter’s side out as the match came to an end, but Fiji’s tenacity and physicality at the breakdown drew plenty of plaudits as the All Blacks struggled to combat the onslaught.

Asked after the match whether he believed Fiji merited a place in the Rugby Championship, All Blacks head coach Ian Foster remained coy on the issue, although he said a solution is needed over the Pacific Island nation’s future.

“I’ve had a whole week of listening to that, eligibilities and all sorts of stuff, and I’m just a rugby coach,” he said on Saturday.

“I’m just going to prepare for next week and let you guys talk about all that, but all I’d say to you is at the start of the week, we’d said that Fiji are a quality rugby team.

“If you go back the last two years, you look at the World Cup, they produced, I’d say, better performances than that [against the All Blacks], but they’re very capable, so what’s next for them, we need a solution.”

Cotter was, by comparison, more outspoken than his Kiwi counterpart as he said he believed that his side had shown enough quality to validate a place alongside the southern hemisphere’s top teams.

“If you can get those games more often, you get to measure yourself against the best teams more often, you will improve, and that type of competition does improve them,” Cotter said on Saturday.

“I think they’ve shown probably enough in this game to be offered more opportunities to play those teams. I hope so. It will be a great challenge that can develop the Fijian talent.

“The sevens team’s going well, they’ve got the Olympics coming up. There’s some talent there from the island that need exposure.

“There’s a lot of things to develop Fijian rugby to be up there, but they’re amazing, explosive athletes, and it’s a joy to watch them play when you see them throwing themselves around the paddock.

“To see them more often against good teams, it will be great.”

Like Fiji, Japan have not yet been admitted into the Rugby Championship, or any kind of annual competition against leading rugby nations, despite the country’s success in recent years.

At the 2015 World Cup, Japan clinched the greatest upset in rugby history when they defeated the Springboks 34-32 as they became the first-ever team not to qualify for the quarter-finals despite winning three of their four pool matches.

The Brave Blossoms followed that up with a strong showing at the 2019 World Cup in Japan, where they went undefeated in the pool stages, beating the likes of Ireland and Scotland, to top their group and qualify the quarter-finals for the first time ever.

Japan returned to international rugby for the first time since the last World Cup earlier this month as they lost to the British and Irish Lions and Ireland in competitive fashion.

Shortly after Japan’s clash with the Lions, Rugby Australia chief executive Andy Marinos indicated the SANZAAR nations are open to the idea of expanding the number of teams in the Rugby Championship after the 2023 World Cup.

However, the former SANZAAR boss remains cautious of the potential pitfalls that come with the expansion of any competition, an issue he was confronted with during his time in charge of Super Rugby between 2015 and 2020.

“The Japan – or any expansion – opportunity would be something we’d look at post the World Cup [in 2023],” Marinos told Stuff.

“We had looked at trying to set up an emerging nations competition, and have our respective ‘A’ teams playing in that competition.

“The big thing we’ve seen, and I’ve said it many times, when the Six Nations expanded from five to six [to include Italy], you want to be able to make sure the teams competing are competitive, week-in, week out.

“Let’s not kid ourselves, coming into a SANZAAR relationship, you’re putting yourself up against arguably three or four of the best teams in the world, on their given day.

“There’s no easy games in that. You want to preserve the competition integrity from that perspective, and make sure the high performance requirements are met, and they understand the commercials around that.

“We [SANZAAR] are no longer in a position to subsidise participation of teams, given the impact everyone has experienced.”

The 2021 Rugby Championship kicks-off on August 15 when the Springboks face Los Pumas at a yet-to-be-determined venue.

Due to COVID-19, this year’s competition is scheduled to be co-hosted by New Zealand and Australia, with the exception of the two matches between the Springboks and Los Pumas, both of which are expected to be played in South Africa.

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Ex-All Black wants Fiji, Japan to be added to 2021 Rugby Championship

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