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FEATURE Is New Zealand finally ready to commit their future to Japan?

Is New Zealand finally ready to commit their future to Japan?
1 year ago

For more than a decade, New Zealand Rugby has been eager to develop a relationship with Japan. The problem, however, is that it has never quite known exactly what sort of relationship.

More specifically, it’s never been able to make its mind up whether it sees Japan as a genuine rugby superpower in the making with the capability to become a major force in the Pacific region, or just a supremely good commercial opportunity for the All Blacks to exploit.

And, in signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) last week, which will see a New Zealand national team – be it the All Blacks, the All Blacks XV or Maori All Blacks – play annually in Japan between 2024 and 2027, it’s still not entirely clear whether NZR has yet made up its mind.

NZR still appears to be having a bob each way on Japan. In announcing the deal, NZR chief executive Mark Robinson made greater reference to the commercial opportunity than he did the prospect of regular exposure to the All Blacks being a key to lifting the high-performance capabilities of the Brave Blossoms.

“The key thing with regards to us committing to a long-term is that it allows us to have a forward view of the opportunities and really grow the overall commercial value of the partnership,” he said.

The MoU between NZR and the Japan RFU should see teams like the All Blacks XV regularly playing on Japanese shores. (Photo By Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

And, the fact that all the games will be played in Japan, highlights the importance of money in this agreement. If it were more about developing Japan as a rugby power, there surely would have been fixtures in places such as Eden Park, Rotorua and Dunedin.

After all, there is nothing like a few weeks in New Zealand to test the mettle of any rugby team.

But while the MoU may have a strong commercial focus, there is a sense that it may also signal that NZR is intent on grooming Japan to take a place in an expanded Rugby Championship before the end of this decade.

As Robinson stated, there is a view within NZR (and shared to some extent by the Sanzaar partners) that the key to integrating any new team into a competition – be it Super Rugby or the Rugby Championship – is to first get the commercial base laid.

No one wants a new team to be a financial burden and so NZR is partly gauging the commercial potential of Japan, not just with a view to seeing what the All Blacks can make by playing there in the next four years, but to see if the economics of the Brave Blossoms entering the Rugby Championship are viable.

Part of the reason New Zealand has never been certain about what sort of relationship it wants with Japan is that it has never been sure whether it wants to connect with them at club level, international level, or both.

Given that Japan is the third largest economy in the world and that rugby is growing in popularity there and heavily backed by corporate giants, presumably everyone already knows the answer as to Japan’s economic feasibility.

The harder question to answer is whether Japan will have the ability to cope with the intensity and pressure of playing in the Rugby Championship.

Part of the reason New Zealand has never been certain about what sort of relationship it wants with Japan is that it has never been sure whether it wants to connect with them at club level, international level, or both.

In 2016, the Sunwolves were welcomed into an expanded Super Rugby, but that never made any sense as Japan had its own domestic, professional club competition that was well funded and growing in stature.

It would have been a bit like a new club being formed in London, but playing in the Top 14 instead of the Premiership and it was maybe no surprise that the Sunwolves were a disaster.

The Sunwolves were doomed to failure. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

As a consequence, NZR, and indeed Sanzaar, became confused as to where Japan sat in its strategic vision and it felt as if they wrongly doubted the rugby potential of the Brave Blossoms based on the lack of cohesion shown by the Sunwolves.

If they brought the Sunwolves in as a first step to preparing Japan to enter the Rugby Championship, they quickly lost confidence in that plan, despite Japan’s progression as an international rugby force being undeniable.

At the 1995 World Cup, the Brave Blossoms fell to a record 145-17 defeat to the All Blacks and the gulf in size, speed and power was so vast, as to make it almost unimaginable that Japan could ever become a credible force in the global game.

When they next met, at the 2011 World Cup, the All Blacks won 83-7 and while it was still a hammering, Japan’s performance was considerably more robust than it had been 16 years previously.

At the next World Cup Japan pulled off the greatest shock in history when they beat the Springboks.

Looking back at where they had been in 1995, to where they were in 2019, Japan were almost unrecognisable.

That was a huge moment, but it was at the next World Cup when the real breakthrough was made. The host nation of the 2019 tournament beat Ireland, then Scotland, to top their pool and make the quarter-finals.

And for 60 minutes in that quarter-final, they troubled the Springboks. Looking back at where they had been in 1995, to where they were in 2019, Japan were almost unrecognisable.

That tournament in 2019 said Japan, with an electric style of rugby that was built on an incredible skill-level executed at incredible speed, had the potential to take a place at rugby’s top table.

But despite the obvious improvements Japan have made over the decades and the undeniable quality of their 2019 World Cup campaign, there are still doubts about their readiness to compete in the Rugby Championship.

What has driven that concern is the knowledge, using Argentina as a case study, about how hard it is for a new entrant team to survive in the Rugby Championship.

Despite impressing in Rugby World Cups, Argentina have struggled to perform with any consistency throughout the Rugby Championship. (Photo by Getty Images)

The Pumas joined the competition in 2012 and while they have generally been competitive, winning Tests has been a struggle.

Only once have they not finished last and while they have won tests in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, the challenge has been learning the art of backing up good performances with good performances.

Southern Hemisphere international rugby comes with the unique challenge of long-haul travel, short turnarounds and vastly different weather conditions.

As the Pumas have shown, it’s incredibly tough to win back-to-back tests in the Rugby Championship, perhaps best illustrated by their results last year which saw them beat the All Blacks in Christchurch, only to be hammered 53-3 seven days later in Hamilton.

Interestingly, Japan have produced similar results in recent years to suggest they too would have the same problem if they joined the Rugby Championship.

If Japan’s readiness to step up is to be truly tested in the next four years, then it is vital that they are also given a place in the proposed Nations Championship.

In late October last year, they had the All Blacks under pressure in Tokyo. With 10 minutes to go, an upset was on the cards, but some miraculous scrambling defence enabled the All Blacks to sneak home 38-31.

Japan’s coach Jamie Joseph said after the game: “The guts of it really, we just made too many mistakes at the wrong time.

“We shut their lineout down, shut their maul down, but it still wasn’t enough and that sort of tells you how good the All Blacks are as a team.

“The key for us really is to go to England now and replicate that performance against a better side.”

It was a great jibe at the All Blacks, but it both backfired and highlighted the issues Japan face in their quest to become part of the Rugby Championship.

Japan came close to scoring an historic upset over the All Blacks in 2022. (Photo by Koki Nagahama/Getty Images)

They were hammered 52-13 at Twickenham two weeks later and so it feels if Japan’s readiness to step up is to be truly tested in the next four years, then it is vital that they are also given a place in the proposed Nations Championship should it ever be given the green light.

“It needs six teams out of the Southern Hemisphere to be played every two years, hopefully from 2026, and we’re making good progress on that,” Robinson says.

“There will be a process to decide who the two teams joining the current Sanzaar partners are, but certainly Fiji and Japan have been talked about a lot. There could be other promotion/relegation type opportunities that bring others to the fore.

“Beyond that on an annual basis around the Rugby Championship we’ll remain open-minded.

“We’re very clear we see big opportunities with Japan, and we’re working really hard with Fiji as well.”

New Zealand may not be quite sure what it wants from Japan now, but it’s likely it will have absolute clarity by 2027, because by then, the Brave Blossoms should have established their case to take a place in the Rugby Championship.

Comments

9 Comments
i
isaac 399 days ago

Kiwis will always be loyal to money...another mou with USA coming soon

e
edward 399 days ago

Scotland and Italy have long been the whipping boys of the 6 Nations and finally they are starting to build better programs - you've got to imagine that Japan and Fiji would do the same in a Southern Hemisphere 6 Nations.

There should also be a lower tier featuring Samoa, Tonga, NZ A, Australia A, Japan A and Hong Kong with the winning team playing relegation/promotion match

Then your NH 6 Nations lower tier would be
Georgia
Romania
Portugal
Spain
Namibia
Russia

and an Americas 6 Nations featuring

US
Canada
Uruguay
Chile
Brazil
Columbia

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