The Brave Blossoms are not the force we saw at the last World Cup

It is often said there are two sides to every story and that certainly seems to be the case for Japan as they head into Rugby World Cup 2023.

Japan back-row forward Michael Leitch, who is set to play in his fourth Rugby World Cup, put forward his view in no uncertain terms, albeit before the Brave Blossoms’ less than impressive summer campaign that saw Japan win one and lose five games.

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“We’re the best team that Japan has ever produced, so we’re going to go for it,” he said. “I think the players we have now compared to 2019 are much more professional. We’ve got much better talent, the whole squad. I think this squad can go all the way.”

It was a view shared by Brave Blossoms assistant coach Tony Brown, who said “I think we have a better rugby team than four years ago and we have the potential to be better than last time.”

Brown’s comments, however, came with a warning, “We are not executing well enough.” A point his boss Jamie Joseph reiterated following the 42-21 loss to Italy in their final warm-up game.

Tonga coach Toutai Kefu, however, had a different view, and Japan’s results since the ‘Ikale Tahi were beaten 21-16 on July 29, is unlikely to have changed his mind.

“My own personal opinion is that Japan of three or four years ago were a lot stronger. I know they have a lot of injuries and have been training very hard and will get better and better I have no doubt…But four years ago they beat us by 40 or 50 points and made a big impact at the World Cup.”

Local fans are equally divided. While some think a quarter-final place is possible, there are just as many questioning whether Japan will even finish third in the pool and qualify for the 2027 edition.

So what accounts for Japan’s poor run since 2019, during which time the only countries they have beaten are Portugal, Uruguay and Tonga.

Covid did not help. The 2020 domestic season was cancelled as a result of the pandemic, following a three-week suspension after a foreign player tested positive for cocaine. And the strict immigration rules imposed by the Japanese government ensured there was no way the Brave Blossoms could travel or accept visiting teams until 2021.

Joseph has no doubt what the other reason is. The absence of any involvement in a cross-border tournament following the Sunwolves’ axing from Super Rugby in 2020 is “a big factor.”

“I’ve said this many times before in similar circumstances in that one of the biggest things in terms of our success in 2019 was that we had a drove of our players playing week in week out Super Rugby – which was a competition far superior in terms of intensity speed and skill and we were playing some of the best players in world.”

After his team had been soundly beaten by Fiji, Joseph – who is returning to coach the Highlanders after the tournament – added: “Look at the team we played tonight. Half are from the Drua and the other half are playing in Europe as professional rugby players.

“Their (Fiji’s) biggest challenge is getting the team together and creating harmony and togetherness in a short period of time. But one thing they have to their advantage is they do play very tough rugby. That is something that has cost us this year.

“Clearly playing in a tougher competition would be better for our players in terms of a World Cup.”

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There are those that say “What about 2015, there was no Sunwolves then?” But a number of players in that team – Leitch, Shota Horie, Fumiaki Tanaka, Harumichi Tatekawa, Akihito Yamada and Male Sa’u – had played for, or trained with, Super Rugby sides or in Craig Wing’s case had League State of Origin experience.

And of course the team came in totally under the radar on the back of an eight-month camp under Eddie Jones.

Japan are the only team at this year’s tournament whose players only play domestic club rugby, and have done so for the last three years, save for Kotaro Matsushima’s two years at Clermont and Kazuki Himeno’s season with the Highlanders.

On the field, it means the players do not always have to be at their best to win – given the big gap that exists between those at the top of the standings and those at the bottom.

Off the field, it means the players are no longer taken out of their comfort zone with 36-hour trips to Argentina and South Africa and food and an environment that they do not come across everyday.

Joseph was certainly not a player who could be described as “soft” but in a way it may best describe his squad – through no fault of their own. The question rugby fans in the Land of the Rising Sun are asking is, “Can they toughen up in time?”

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