Team effort: Japan pose with their trophy after beating Sri Lanka in their Asian Five Nations match

JAPAN COACH John Kirwan talks us through what has been a tough year for the country…

“This is a special season for Japanese rugby. After the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan during March, we need to try to give the people hope.

“There’s been an incredible show of courage in adversity from the Japanese people and that’s taught all of us a lesson. The players want to dedicate the season to those who lost their lives and homes. Two of our players have lost everything, but none of them lost their lives, thank goodness. We had a dilemma about whether to hold our training camps but the families of those who had lost their homes said we must carry on.

“We’ve retained our HSBC Asian Five Nations title and now our goal is to automatically qualify for the next World Cup. To do that we need two wins in this year’s World Cup pool in New Zealand. The matches against Canada and Tonga will be our big games. They won’t be easy but we’re confident we can beat them both.

“We’ve risen from 19th to 13th in the world rankings in my four years as coach. I only had eight months to prepare for the 2007 World Cup and this time we’ve been building for four years and we understand a lot more about our players. We’re starting to play a style of rugby that suits us and we play Samoa, Tonga and Fiji every year now in the IRB Pacific Nations Cup (PNC), which is helping us understand what we need to do to play at the next level.

“Our Top League is improving by the year and our athletes are getting bigger and stronger and better. The pressure on us has changed because we’re not always the underdogs any more. We’ve worked very hard psychologically. When I arrived there was an acceptance of getting beaten, with age-old excuses about not being big or strong enough, so we had to stop that.

“People ask me how you prepare for a World Cup and I say you don’t. You do all you can in advance and pick your best team, but then you have to roll with the punches. Once again we’ve got the worst draw (Japan play Tonga five days after facing New Zealand, then take on Canada six days later). Tonga and Canada have eight days’ rest before they play us. They have small turnarounds in their other games but the games against us are the big ones for them. I never let the players have excuses so I can’t either. I just want the whole world to cross their fingers we don’t get any injuries!

“We play the Pacific Nations Cup this month. We’re really upset that the IRB moved it from Japan to Fiji after the tsunami hit. I understand why the IRB had to take some action but I wish they’d waited a bit longer for things to settle down.

“This year’s World Cup will be my fifth – I played in 1987 and 1991, and coached Italy in 2003 and Japan in 2007. World Cups are the greatest time of our lives and that’s what I tell the players. That’s important to remember. I want our guys to have a good time and go out and see a bit of New Zealand. But you only have a good time when you win so it’s important to do well.”

This article appeared in the August 2011 issue of Rugby World Magazine.

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