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The stunning ploy to use an 'undercover' rugby team to prepare Japan for the World Cup

By Ben Smith
Japan's ploy to use an undercover international team worked to prepare them for the World Cup. (Photos/Gettys Images)

Japan is just one win away from a ‘Triple Crown’ after beating Scotland to top Pool A and qualify for the quarterfinals for the first time ever.


Although they probably won’t play another Home Nations team in this World Cup, beating two of them has been no mean feat. It has been a remarkable World Cup for Jamie Joseph’s side so far.

When you look deeper below the surface at how they pulled this off, it becomes even more astounding. Joseph and his staff took a massive gamble over 2019, undertaking a high-risk ploy that defied conventional wisdom.

Continue reading below…

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The team that beat Ireland and Scotland has largely been playing amateurs and up-and-coming stars of the future, as part of an undercover international team operating in the shadows.

A Sunwolves ‘B’ team, called the Wolfpack or Japan A, formed the backbone of Japan’s preparations which held back stars from Super Rugby in order to play together against lesser competition.

The Wolfpack’s opposition this year were: Hurricanes B (twice), Highlanders B, Western Force and Melbourne Rising (the Rebels’ second team comprised of many Victorian club rugby players).

Stars of this World Cup, like prolific try-scorer Kotaro Matsushima were trotted out against guys graduating from under-20’s, provincial-level stalwarts and even local club rugby battlers.


Instead of testing themselves against former Wallaby pair Will Genia and Quade Cooper of the Rebels, flyhalf Yu Tamura and halfback Yutaka Nagare played the curtain-raiser against Harrison Goddard and Dan England.

Hooker Shota Horie, Australian-born lock James Moore, speedster Kenki Fukuoka, fan favourite Kazuki Himeno and serial offloader Will Tupou were all Wolfpack regulars this year, which kicked off their shadow season around April mid-way through Super Rugby.

It is hardly the type of rugby that would be ideal to take down two tier one nations. It was an extremely bold call to gut the Sunwolves of most of the top tier Japanese talent and ignore Super Rugby for their World Cup preparation.

Even coaches were moved towards the Wolfpack as a priority, with super-mind Tony Brown spending significant time with them after handing the reins of the Sunwolves to assistant Scott Hansen.


Steve Hansen’s All Black mini-camps that upset Super Rugby teams looks like child’s play compared to this operation. The Wolfpack’s ‘shadow’ season was used to prepare Japan for the Pacific Nations Cup which then led into this tournament.

This ploy in hindsight looks like a masterstroke but is still a head-scratcher.

How is playing a lower level of competition better for a team trying to take on internationals, including the recently-ranked number one side? Is it possible that the JRFU were right in claiming that ‘Super Rugby no longer remains the best pathway for the development of players for the national side’?

Japan’s stellar results have proved so, at least this year. The answer could lie in not the quality of opposition but the timing, which has always been a gripe for the Sunwolves and Super Rugby, which rolls straight off the back of the Top League season.

“We have to ensure (the national players) can play at the right time of the year,” Jamie Joseph explained to the Japan Times when asked why certain players were being held back from the tougher Super Rugby competition.

A lighter schedule has probably protected the Japan side from incurring injuries that would have been part and parcel of a physical Super Rugby season, whilst managing the load over the middle part of the year to build and peak at the Rugby World Cup. That still doesn’t explain the ‘doing’ part of the equation as everyone wants to ‘build and peak’ in November.

If Japan does claim another tier one scalp, the implications could be far-reaching with how those teams treat their domestic club competitions in a World Cup year. It may already have.

It is rather fitting that their quarterfinal opponent is South Africa, a country that vehemently opposed their inclusion in SANZAAR’s club competition and ultimately pushed for their axing. A competition that Japan then snubbed to prove they could improve in their own right, which they have.

It won’t be lost that a win over South Africa in a knockout game would be the ultimate poetic justice given the bad blood between the two nations. However, Japan’s performance should be a shock to both Hemispheres given how they have done it, regardless of whether they beat the Springboks or not.

Rugby World Cup city guide – Fukuoka:

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