Lions Watch: Who to watch out for in Jamie Joseph's re-geared Japan squad
In naming a 36-man squad to prepare for upcoming games against the Sunwolves, British and Irish Lions and Ireland, Japan coach Jamie Joseph has picked just 19 survivors from the group that reached the quarterfinals of Rugby World Cup 2019.
However, the Brave Blossoms’ concept of being “One Team” is still very much in existence, despite the changes and the addition of 13 uncapped players and four with very limited international experience.
The slogan was instigated prior to Rugby World Cup 2019 and reflected the varied background of the players chosen to wear the Cherry Blossom on their chest.
“A big part of our success was how tight and connected we were as a team,” Joseph said in announcing his squad. Six of the newcomers in particular represent this changing face of Japanese rugby (and society) and are set to be an integral of the Brave Blossoms as they build toward the World Cup in France in 2023.
Two followed the traditional pathway of elite high school and university, two travelled here from Tonga to get an education and two young Australians headed to Japan to play for Panasonic Wild Knights.
Scrum-half Naoto Saito captained traditional powerhouse Waseda University to the collegiate championship in 2020.
His leadership, quick delivery and more than useful goal-kicking made him an instant target for Suntory Sungoliath, who know a thing or two about halfbacks. George Gregan and Fourie du Preez both played for the team under Eddie Jones and Gregan worked with Saito during some coaching clinics run by sponsors of the 2019 World Cup. A few months later the two were reunited when Gregan was again in Japan commentating on the Sunwolves as Saito – “a player with a great work ethic” – made his Super Rugby debut months before he made the transition from student to Top League player.
The presence of Yutaka Nagare – Japan’s starting scrum-half at the World Cup – has limited Saito’s playing time this year with Suntory, but with Nagare deemed not in the best condition for international duty, Saito will look to push Kaito Shigeno hard for the No. 9 jersey.
Shota Emi’s pathway to the national team is also traditional but not quite in the rugby sense.
Born in Indonesia, while his father was stationed out there, Emi went to Gakushuin High School and University, better known for producing the political elite of Japan than rugby players.
Some outstanding games for the Sunwolves in 2017 saw him close to national honours before the Suntory flyer suffered an injury that saw him miss more than a year of rugby.
An elusive runner in the mould of Jonny May, his time with the Super Rugby side and recent good form has finally earned him a call-up.
Back-row forward Tevita Tatafu (Suntory) and wing Siosaia Fifita (Kintetsu Liners) are the latest in a long line of Tongan-born players who owe their presence in Japan to the former monarch of the pacific island, King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV.
Back in 1976 the king was introduced to the “soroban,” or Japanese abacus, by Toshio Nakano, a former manager of the Daito Bunka University rugby team, and his fascination with the counting machine allowed long-standing links to be established between his nation and the university, creating a pathway into Japan for Tongan rugby players.
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Fifita, who at 22 is the youngest member of the squad, graduated from Tenri University earlier this year having led them to their first ever collegiate championship win in January, and while he is uncapped at senior level, he has represented Japan at under-20 level and played for the Sunwolves in their final season.
Tevita, meanwhile, went to Meguro Gakuin High School before graduating from Tokai University, the same school Japan captain Michael Leitch went to. Highly rated by his Sungoliath teammate (and former Gloucester lock) Tom Savage, Tevita has 3 full caps to his name – back in 2016 when Japan fielded a young side in the Asia Rugby Championship – as well a number of games for Japan Under-20s. Ben Gunter moved to Japan from Brisbane while still a teenager and holds the record as the youngest player to play in the Top League, making his debut at 19 years and six days.
As the holder of a Thai passport courtesy of his mother and the land of his birth, Gunter is deemed an Asian player and not part of the overall foreign quota and as such has been able to get plenty of playing time at Panasonic under Robbie Deans. He has also benefited greatly from playing alongside the likes of David Pocock and more recently George Kruis.
Panasonic’s recent triumph in the Top League was based on their defensive prowess and their ability to attack from quick turnover ball (a la Justin Tipuric and Tom Curry) and Gunter (now 23 years old) was at the forefront of that along with another newcomer to the Japan set-up, Jack Cornelsen.
The son of Wallabies great Greg Cornelsen, the 26-year-old No. 8 has been in Japan since 2017 and, like Gunter and a number of the other foreign-born players, stayed here during the COVID pandemic to ensure he met the residency criteria to make him eligible for his adopted country.
While he may not have Super Rugby experience, like four of the five previously mentioned, he has proved a quick learner, something that Joseph highlighted was of upmost importance.
“We need to bring the young guys through, start working with them and see if we can improve them in a short time,” Joseph said. “They also need to understand how the team works off the field and contribute to the team values.” Very differing backgrounds but “One Team.”
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