It’s official, Brave Blossoms fever is taking over the rugby world. Japan’s clean sweep of Pool A at the World Cup has helped them knock off the likes of Fiji and Tonga as everyone’s favourite second team.
Having delighted fans and pundits alike with not only their high-octane style of play but also their underdog victories over Ireland and Scotland, Jamie Joseph’s side are now preparing for a quarter-final with South Africa, the team they famously beat four years ago in Brighton.
When asked in a press conference on Friday whether or not his side would be drawing on that famous day on the English south coast, the New Zealander was unequivocal. “No, we won’t be drawing on that at all. In fact, I have been trying to forget about it for the last four years.
“Everyone talked about it but we are a different team, different players. Yes, we have got some same players but that was an amazing achievement at the last World Cup. We are working on our own things and we won’t be alluding to it.”
With the Japan team named for the quarter-final, only Shota Horie, Luke Thompson, Michael Leitch and Kotaro Matsushima retain their starting spots from the 2015 victory, while Fumiaki Tanaka, the starting scrum-half that day, drops to the bench. Keita Inagaki, Amanaki Mafi and Yu Tamura – all on the bench in Brighton – are also set to be involved on Sunday.
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There are 13 entirely new players in the matchday 23 and Joseph’s point is an important one as there is inevitably plenty of change between World Cups with teams freshening up their squads with injections of new talent and/or changes in the coaching department bringing about a shift in game plan and the players required to fulfil it.
With Joseph reportedly close to agreeing terms on a contract extension, the latter seems less likely moving forward for the Blossoms, though the former is certainly a consideration.
Here, RugbyPass takes a look below at a handful of players who can help Japan maintain their current success and step up to the senior side over the next World Cup cycle and further press their country’s case for inclusion in an annual tier one competition.
Sounds like cash is nothing compared to the memories Japan are making at World Cup 2019https://t.co/T3hRdZnepR
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 17, 2019
Kosuke Horikoshi (hooker)
The 24-year-old front row is a natural long-term replacement for Horie, with the former Japanese captain set to turn 34 next year. He was unlucky to miss out on selection for this World Cup and although Atsushi Sakate has done an admirable job deputising for Horie, it’s a role that Horikoshi will have his eye on.
A graduate of Teikyo University and the Japanese under-20 pathway, Horikoshi is a reliable set-piece hooker who can help Japan maintain their efficient scrum while also being effective in the loose, if not quite the influential figure that Horie currently is.
Having spent a number of years in the university system, Horikoshi is one of the examples of high-end talents who would have perhaps been better served by entering the professional arena at a younger age, as he now makes up for lost time with Suntory Sungoliath.
Halatoa Vailea, (winger/flanker)
Vailea was one of the Japan under-20s standout players last year in the World Rugby U20 Championship where he excelled as a winger, blending an impressive combination of speed and strength. This year, at the U20 Trophy competition, he moved to the flank and put in displays that were reminiscent of Tom Croft and Pierre Spies as he marauded his way through would-be tacklers.
He is more likely a winger at the senior level against more competitive opposition, something which could see him evolve into a player that can partner Matsushima in the back three, especially if Kenki Fukuoka goes ahead with his plans to turn his back on rugby and commit to becoming a doctor. He is another example of a player who should be playing professionally.
Shota Fukui (flanker)
If Joseph is looking for a successor to Leitch or Lappies Labuschagne for the next cycle, with both players currently in their 30s, he need look no further than current Japan under-20 captain Fukui. The Panasonic Wild Knight has eschewed the traditional university pathway in Japan and instead signed professional terms with his club side after he left school.
While that university pathway is the right move for many players, he has profited from going immediately into a professional environment and is a strong candidate to make the step up to the senior side as soon as next year.
Between Fukui and Kazuki Himeno, Japan and Joseph could have one of the most feared flanker pairings in world rugby moving forward, with the former blending his mobility and contact area work with the physicality of the current World Cup standout.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 15, 2019
Tevita Tatafu (No8)
A contemporary of Horikoshi in the under-20s, Tatafu delivers ball-carrying, offloading and a menacing physical presence in the No8 jersey and his game has plenty of the hallmarks that have made Mafi one of the more dynamic players around.
Thankfully for Joseph, Tatafu does not seem to share Mafi’s proclivity for incidents and controversy off the pitch and his introduction alongside Himeno and Fukui would give Japan a great transition plan in the back row, as they say goodbye to the iconic figure of Leitch in the coming years.
Both Tatafu and Horikoshi having already made their debuts for the Blossoms and look set to be at the heart of the group’s preparation for the 2023 World Cup in France.
There is no lack of scrum-half talent coming through the ranks, with Atora Hondo and Shinobu Fujiwara knocking on the door, although it is difficult to see Yutaka Nagare giving up his spot anytime soon. Fly-half Takuya Yamasawa is rated highly in the country and could eventually replace Tamura as Japan’s primary playmaker, while Yuto Mori doesn’t lack for ability either.
One area that Japan have struggled to produce players in has been the second row, although that could be about to change with Itsuki Kodama looking like a particularly talented young lock. He could be joined by Katsuto Kubo, with both having impressed at the under-20 level. Finding a replacement for the talismanic Thompson will be one of Joseph’s first priorities after this World Cup.
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