The 2015 Rugby World Cup gave us two major talking points before the knockout stages arrived: Japan beating South Africa and England becoming the first host nation to not qualify from the group stages.
Both were momentous, memorable events that generated greater interest in the tournament, which, in the end, was a fairly predictable and straightforward victory for New Zealand.
Rugby World Cups have never been particularly competitive. There have been upsets, of course, mostly involving France beating New Zealand or Wales losing to a Pacific Island side, but there are usually no more than three or four teams with a real chance of winning. More than that, it’s rare that the group stages throw up a surprise. Even in 2015, Japan failed to qualify for the knockout stage and England’s ‘Group of Death’ was so obviously unbalanced (it also contained a good Fiji team) that the organisers delayed the seeding for this tournament to avoid a similar situation.
This time around, however, the group stages look considerably more competitive. We should see a number of third-seeded teams make a real play for the knockout stages, with only Group B looking reasonably straightforward for New Zealand and South Africa. Even there, Italy’s recent improvement means they can’t be taken as lightly as they might have done previously.
In Group A, Japan seem well-set to cause an upset.
The Brave Blossoms’ chances
Host nations, current holders of the ‘biggest upset’ title after their exploits last time round, and ranked eleventh in the world currently – in some ways, it seems odd to suggest that Japan qualifying from the group would be an upset. But, while stranger things have happened, they don’t often at rugby world cups.
In Japan’s way this time lie Ireland and Scotland, currently ranked third and seventh in the world, respectively, while Russia (twentieth) and Samoa (sixteenth) will also be looking for a moment of glory. Of those teams, only Samoa are likely to have much experience of playing in the kind of humidity and temperatures that will probably feature in Japan. The home nation, meanwhile, having been honing their fast-paced brand of rugby in those conditions for some time now.
Moreover, of course, they have had a taste of the ‘upset’ drug and will certainly want more. They won three games in the last tournament, the most of any side not to qualify from the group stage, and it was only a bonus point that separated them from Scotland, who had a much kinder schedule. This time around, Japan have lengthy turnarounds rather than the four days they had last time between their heroics against South Africa and the second-strongest side in the group, Scotland.
Although the Sunwolves, Japan’s Super Rugby franchise, will be cut after the 2020 tournament, the Japanese Rugby Union has made clear that the Top League is their preferred way of developing the national side. The influx of high-level players into the league suggests this policy might well work, with a number of current All Blacks and Aussies set to have a stint in Japan after the world cup. Concerns about the future Japanese pathway remain, especially with so many international stars in their league, but for now, players such as Duane Vermeulen, Israel Dagg, Kwagga Smith, and Matt Giteau mean the Top League is getting stronger.
Captain and talisman Michael Leitch has acknowledged as much, saying in an interview with Kyodo News, “The Top League is getting more competitive each year. We’ve got better players coming, better coaches, so the level is getting better”, while expressing a concern that it hasn’t yet reached the level it needs to, noting that, it’s “not enough to prepare us to beat top Tier 1 countries”.
Although his side have only beaten Italy of the Tier 1 sides in 2018, they managed to draw with France away in 2017 and have scored 30+ points in losing efforts against both Australia and New Zealand in that time, giving England a scare last autumn, and comfortably overcoming most of their Tier 2 opponents. The gap is closing.
Leitch, aiming for his third world cup, has also said that Japan are relishing the respect they have been accorded recently, adding that they are aiming high. “There’s no reason we can’t beat the teams in our pool,” he said, adding that the goal is “to win every game. We have to set our targets high and keep driving for it.”
He is, however, remaining grounded, insisting that the opening game against Russia is the most important for his side. “It’s the first game, they are a good physical team, and if Russia are going to win a game at the World Cup, they are going to beat Japan. That’s their main goal and they’re going to come out and give us everything they’ve got. If we go in with the mindset we have beaten them before [the game kicks off], we’re going to get done.”
His attitude is sensible but fans could be forgiven for getting carried away. Japan have home advantage, a serious national league, a reputation to uphold, and some serious talent. Leitch’s fellow veterans, Amanaki Mafi and Fumiaki Tanaka, will also be aiming to build on their previous successes, joined by younger players like Keita Inagaki and Timothy Lafaele. Promising young talent Shota Fukui is unlikely to make the cut for this World Cup but is certainly another one to watch.
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