'If you're asking can they win the World Cup in 15-20 years' time, then yes'
Japanese rugby is growing at a rate of knots off the back of the momentum built after successful campaigns at the 2015 and 2019 Rugby World Cups. In 1995 the Brave Blossoms were subjected to a humiliating 145-17 defeat to New Zealand, but just 20 years later they were celebrating one of the biggest upsets in the history of modern-day sport as they famously beat South Africa in Brighton.
Their achievements thereafter have been well documented, with a first ever World Cup quarter final appearance in 2019 the high point for Japanese rugby.
Former All Blacks full back Robbie Deans has been coaching in Japan since 2014 and has won four Top League titles with the Panasonic Wild Knights. Deans is one of rugby’s great thinkers, and he is adamant the infrastructure is in place for Japan to win the Rugby World Cup in the not-too-distant future.
“Yes, I think Japan do have the potential to win the World Cup one day especially given how much investment has gone into improving the infrastructure of Japanese rugby over the last few years,” he said.
“If you look at the last World Cup when Japan lost to South Africa in the quarter-finals it was basically an even fixture at halftime. What Japan needs to build at test level is strength in depth because to win a World Cup you’ve got to win three tough test matches on the bounce.
“Japan are at the stage where they can consistently challenge to get into the last eight but at the moment, they probably don’t have the depth to go further. But if you are asking me whether they will have that depth and quality to win the World Cup in 15-20 years’ time, then yes, I think there’s a good chance of that happening.
“You look at the transformation since I’ve been in Japan, and they are unrecognisable now to where they were six or seven years ago. In terms of DNA their biggest challenge is the middle row, but they cater for that through the eligibility laws.
“In my opinion their biggest area of weakness going forward is the front row if they want to be consistently competitive at international level. However, they have players coming through their system who I think will fix these issues moving forward, while the coaching is excellent.
“But I do think Japan need to be playing in a consistent international competition where they can hone their skills. Whether that’s the Rugby Championship or the Six Nations I’m not sure, but I suppose they’ll go wherever the door opens for them.”
Not so long ago the cash-laden fields of the then Top League was a place where big name players used go to see out their careers in relative comfort when they’d achieved everything they wanted at test level. There was a school of thought that the rugby scene in Japan was a lot softer, especially from a physical point of view, and marquee players could just coast it. But Deans insists things have changed gradually over the last few years, with the launch of the fully professional NTT Japan Rugby League One catapulting the level of domestic rugby in the country to a new level. Some of the world’s best players such as Pieter Steph du Toit, Malcolm Marx, Patrick Tuipulotu, Kwagga Smith, and Samu Kerevi currently ply their trades in Japan. With a World Club Cup being mooted in the near future Deans is adamant there should be Japanese representation in such a competition, and he insists they would be extremely competitive against the best the Champions Cup, and Super Rugby could offer.
“Initially the competition was used as a twilight zone for internationals from Super Rugby, and Europe,” said Deans. “The number of experienced international coaches who have come to Japan is also a massive positive because they can transfer that IP onto the players, and homegrown Japanese coaches.
“What is great about this new league is there is also a huge emphasis on developing Japanese players, it isn’t purely about getting world stars to come over here, although that does help. We want this competition to develop the next generation of world class Japanese players.
“It was always fast, skilful, but lacked the physical element of the other top competitions around the world of premiership top for the Super Rugby. But in the last seven years, that’s changed. Every outfit has invested in their facilities, and the conditioning programme, and the body types have changed over time.
“The physicality, the defensive lines, and the intensity around the contact area has improved tenfold in Japan. This league doesn’t pale in comparison to the other top leagues around the world anymore, especially the top six teams.
“If there is to be a World Club Cup then I think the Japanese domestic scene needs to be involved, and I’m confident we’d be compeititve.”
Prior to joining Panasonic Wild Knights in 2014 Deans enjoyed a stellar coaching career in New Zealand where he won five Super Rugby titles with the Crusaders, while he also coached Australia at test level. Deans is more qualified than most to talk about the challenges facing rugby union in both Australia, and New Zealand. When Super Rugby was launched in 1996 it was superior to any other domestic rugby competition on the planet, but it has lost its way over the past 10 years with crowds lower than they used to be, especially since the South African franchises defected to the United Rugby Championship. Deans, who coached the Crusaders in Super Rugby’s halcyon days, is concerned at the way the game is going in New Zealand, and believes they need to form a new competition with Japan if they want to keep up with the Northern Hemisphere.
“I honestly think in the long run New Zealand and Australia need to align with Japan,” said Deans. “Japanese teams need to be playing in a cross-border competition, but New Zealand and Australia also need access to the Japanese market.
“It has to have meaning though, and it must be based on meritocracy. So, for arguments sakes, you’d have the top 5 in our competition qualifying for a cross border competition with the best from Super Rugby also going through into it.
“You’ve got to capture your domestic market first, so it could be a little like you see in the Northern Hemisphere where the English Premiership and Top 14 come first, and then the top six qualify for the European Cup. We need to see something similar in New Zealand, Australia, and Japan, but I am confident it will happen in time.
“I think it has to happen with the next 10 years, if not sooner, but some people need to swallow their pride to get on with it. They need to do the right thing by the game, and the future.”
Like every coach Deans keeps a close eye on the international game and is intrigued with how the balance of power is shifting to the Northern Hemisphere. While South Africa may be world champions France, Ireland, and England are ranked in the top five with the former two having recently beaten New Zealand. Deans has a hunch that a 2023 will be the year where a European nation lifts the William Webb Ellis Cup for the second time.
“Just look at how competitive the international game is,” said Deans. “There are more contenders that can win next year’s World Cup than I can ever remember which is obviously a very good thing.
“I think there’s a very good chance a Northern Hemisphere nation will win the World Cup this time. If you look at the top three nations in the world then two of them, France, and Ireland, are from the Northern Hemisphere, while England are always strong.
“France have always been consistently competitive, but have never won a World Cup, but they’ll be among the front runners in a years’ time. I do think test rugby has some problems though.
“A lot of it in between World Cup’s is meaningless. I think that needs to change.”
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