In just over 15 months, Japan will be rolling out the red carpet for the biggest event in international rugby – the Rugby World Cup. On the back of the Brave Blossoms’ incredible win over South Africa in 2015, and the fact that the growing rugby nation will be hosting the competition, Japan will have their sights on potentially laying claim to a place in the quarterfinals for the first time in their history.
Of course, in order to make it out of their pool, Japan will likely have to achieve a victory over either Scotland or Ireland – two teams that Japan have never beaten. In 2016 Japan came within five points of toppling Scotland – their best ever result. The picture is bleaker against Ireland, with their closest match being their first ever encounter, taking place in 1995 (a 32-16 win to the Irish).
With matches against Samoa and Russia also on the cards, it’s certainly not going to be straightforward for Japan to progress to the knock-out round of the competition, but Japan are trending up and after their result against the Springboks in the last tournament, anything is possible.
The bigger question, however, is not how well Japan will perform in the World Cup, but what will happen to the team after the competition?
As it stands, Japan are playing three matches every year against top opposition, with the rest of their games being played primarily against Asian and Pacific nations. World Rugby’s new calendar for 2020 means that matches between tier two and tier one countries should increase – but without a schedule to be confirmed until next year at the earliest, it’s difficult to know how substantial this change will be.
In all likelihood, we’ll see Japan host a tier 1 nation in June (much like now), and then Japan will get to play one of the Six Nations teams in Europe come the end of the year. Even after factoring in some one-off games (it seems that Australia and New Zealand are partial to playing the Japanese every couple of years), Japan’s regular schedule is still likely to be made up of primarily weaker teams.
The smaller nations have been knocking on the door of the tier one teams for a long time now, and the reasons for keeping them out of top-flight competitions are becoming few and far between.
Certainly, the gap between some of the teams at the bottom of the top tier and those at the top of the second tier has narrowed considerably, and in some cases disappeared altogether. Italy, in particular, has won very few matches against top opposition, yet for some reason their place in the Six Nations is considered sacrosanct. In terms of raw competition, Japan, Fiji, Samoa and Georgia are very close to the top tier, if not already in it.
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The bigger issue that has been raised by World Rugby in more recent years is that of money – it’s simply not sustainable to bring in teams from nations where rugby has access to considerably less funding. This is, naturally, a reasonable concern. Rugby is a professional sport and, quite frankly, sending teams like England and Ireland to the Pacific Islands is an easy way to start haemorrhaging money (or, at least, potential earnings).
That’s not to say that the financial cost of taking matches to Samoa, Fiji and Tonga means it shouldn’t happen – far from it. Improving the overall standard of competition in world rugby and increasing the number of competitive teams will ultimately result in a better product for consumers.
At present most of the excitement from the pool stages of the Rugby World Cup comes from figuring out which team isn’t going to make it out of that year’s pool of death, given only 12 different teams have qualified for the knock out rounds in the history of the competition.
At the end of the day, money should not be an excuse for excluding improving teams from playing in the top tier – but at least there’s some merit in the argument. However, this argument certainly doesn’t extend to Japan, where considerable investment is being made into the game.
You need to look no further than the Top League, where the upper echelon of salaries is comparable to that in the world’s ‘premier’ competitions. The sponsoring companies in the Top League are household names, willing to invest copious amounts to ensure that their team is up there with the best of the best. Yes, there’s no question that the funds exist to support Japan’s move into the top there – so what’s holding them back?
Arguably, the biggest issue for Japan is that it’s a big koi in a little pond – year after year, the Brave Blossoms trounce their local Asian opposition. The closest tier one country to Japan is Australia, who are almost a 10-hour flight away, making it somewhat difficult to create a functional international competition. Of course, it ‘works’ in Super Rugby – so maybe The Rugby Championship is where Japan’s future lies.
No one is going to suggest that Japan are quite ready to foot it with Australia and co on an annual basis, but with a few years of regular tests against quality international opposition under their belts, it could well be on the cards.
What we really need to see is Japan heading to Europe come the end of every year and playing three or four matches against a string of decent opposition – think Italy, Georgia, Romania, and then one match against one of the bigger Six Nations teams.
Japan may not have been pushing for inclusion in top-flight rugby for as long as the likes of Georgia and the Pacific Island nations, but you’d be hard pressed to find a country in the world better suited to make the leap into that upper tier.
The Brave Blossoms are growing stronger by the year, the Japanese rugby economy is huge and able to sustain a first-class team, and you’ll struggle to find more passionate rugby fans anywhere in the world.
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