Konno losing battle on all fronts

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 August, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 August, 1999, 12:00am

Shiggy Konno, the grand old man of Japanese rugby, used to stun listeners at post-match gatherings with the tale that he was a 'failed kamikaze pilot'.

An aborted suicide mission, seemingly, saved the immaculately mannered and hugely admired administrator from the great scrum in the sky.

Since the end of the war, Konno's traditionalist style has seen him wage battles to prevent the spread of professionalism in the game, especially at home in Japan.

With company rugby so dominant, it was a fight which he lost but he still tried to keep the national team as home-based as possible.

A number of Fijians and Tongans, who were 'assimilated' into Japanese life, broke into the squad for the 1995 World Cup but did not really do much to help the cause - Japan were beaten 145-17, the heaviest defeat in the event's history.

With Konno's finger in the dam failing to prevent that trickle of foreigners into the team, the pressure built up and a flood of overseas players have competed in the Pacific Rim tournament over the past few years.

They were a pretty decent lot who helped steel the side but they were not world class by any means, which if nothing else allowed Konno to keep his head held high during his many International Rugby Board meetings.

But thoughts of that failed kamikaze flight must have crossed his mind last week when former All Black stars Jamie Joseph and Graeme Bachop were named as part of a six-man foreign legion in the Japan squad for this year's World Cup in Wales.

Joseph, an enforcer with the All Blacks who played in the team that thumped Japan four years ago, and gifted scrumhalf Bachop have been in the country for more than the required three years - both played in the Aliens side at the 1998 Hong Kong Tens - but it was only recently that there were indications that they were in line to swap the silver fern for the rising sun.

Bachop was approached by the All Blacks to make a comeback for them last season but contractual issues stopped that coming to pass.

While there is nothing unusual about rugby players competing for a 'foreign' country - ex-Springbok Tiaan Strauss has been given a bit of a roasting by the South African press after successful outings with his adopted Wallabies - the size and stature of the Japan mercenaries is surprising.

Joseph and Bachop are joined by centre Andrew McCormick - whose father was an All Black - Greg Smith, Robert Gordon and useful Fijian winger Pat Tuidraki. And, in another move that must have had Konno shaking his head in disbelief, McCormick has been named as captain.

The Japanese have played in the previous three World Cups and have produced some thrilling moments, notably in their 23-42 loss to Australia in 1987 and 16-32 reversal to Ireland four years later.

With one win to their credit, a 52-8 triumph over Zimbabwe in 1991, and narrow losses to the United States and Ireland, again, in 1995 their World Cup record is not at all bad - leaving aside that hammering by New Zealand four years ago, that is.

In World Cups past it has all been about playing for the country, trying to save face and displaying that Asian teams, despite their lack of size, are tactically and technically on a par with many of the leading nations.

By recruiting Joseph and Bachop, the chances of the Japan 'All Blacks' getting good results against group opponents Wales, Argentina and Samoa have improved markedly but it's doubtful if there will be much rejoicing at home if victory is achieved.