It’s been almost 18 months since Japan last played a test match – a quarter-final defeat at the hands of the Springboks in the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
After the roaring success of the flagship competition in Japan, 2020 was set to be a bumper year for the Brave Blossoms, with fixtures scheduled against the likes of England, France, New Zealand the Barbarians. That never eventuated, however, due to the advent of COVID, and Japan had to settle for seriously contracted Top League competition as their only source of rugby entertainment for the year.
2021 has already gotten off to a much better start, with the Top League now in its knockout stages and the Brave Blossoms set to kick their international campaign off with an historical match against the British and Irish Lions in Scotland.
While Scotland coach Gregor Townsend hinted following the Six Nations that his side could also face off against Japan – although Townsend wouldn’t be involved with the team at that stage due to his Lions commitments – Japan coach Jamie Joseph has suggested that they’re preparing just for the solitary Lions test at this stage.
“We don’t have a lot of time to prepare for our match,” he said in a mid-week press conference. “We haven’t played since the last World Cup. Scotland have played quite a few matches since then, and we’ve got a wee ways to go.
“It [the Lions game] gives us a crucial starting point for our World Cup preparations. It’s a one-off, unique opportunity for us. There’s certainly no way that I would put added pressure on the group or the organisation by trying to get warm-up games.”
Joseph also said that an internal match was being planned ahead of travelling to Scotland, likely between players eligible for the final Brave Blossoms squad.
While Japan may not have played any games since 2019, the higher standard of play in this year’s Top League competition – undoubtedly boosted thanks to the presence of Beauden Barrett, Michael Hooper and Brodie Retallick, among others – ensures that Joseph’s charges won’t enter the Lions’ den without any rugby under their belts whatsoever.
“We haven’t played a test match since the World Cup [but] that doesn’t restrict the keenness or the motivation that the players have got,” he said.
“[It’s] not ideal preparation. The Top League, however, in my view has really improved. There’s a high quality of coaching now in Japan, and a lot of international players now ply their trade in Japan, which is really good for the game as well.”
Japan head coach Jamie Joseph has named his first squad since the 2019 World Cup ahead of the nation's historic clash with the British and Irish Lions in June.https://t.co/JrOYzewNec
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 14, 2021
Joseph also suggested that Japan’s continual advancement on the world stage will be significantly affected by the international calendar and whether World Rugby can finally create a window that works for both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.
“I think what we need to do internationally, is that we need to sort out the window that suits international rugby,” he said.
“The biggest challenge for me as the international coach for Japan, is getting a season where our players can play domestic rugby that will support our companies, the Top League, our stakeholders and our sponsors, and then give the players an opportunity to have a breather away from the game, and have a preseason and then get into some test matches, and we’re not quite there yet in that respect.”
Long-term, Joseph hopes that Japan can find a permanent spot in one of rugby’s premier annual international competitions – such as The Rugby Championship.
“That would be the ultimate,” Joseph said. “But before we reach the ultimate it’s a wee bit like the World Cup: a lot of things have to got to start happening.
“For us, we’re a rugby team that hasn’t played for 18 months, so the first thing that needs to happen for us really is to get back and play rugby.
“For me to make comments around what would be great … in about three years’ time just would be remiss.”
Japan’s inclusion in The Rugby Championship would be just rewards for their continued and significant improvement over the past decade but would perhaps leave some in the Pacific Islands feeling aggrieved that the likes of Fiji and Samoa have been left out in the cold.
Fiji are set to play a match against the All Blacks in July while Samoa have lined up an end of year match against the Barbarians.
Japan’s battle with the Lions is set to take place at Murrayfield on 26 June.
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