Rugby World Cup

Japan should disband foreign legion after World Cup exit

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 October, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 October, 1999, 12:00am

So Japan are out of the World Cup. The Asian champions were predictably beaten by Argentina in their final group game to bow out of the tournament with hardly any fuss. Japan have represented Asia at all four World Cups.

They were invited to the first two tournaments - at the time there were no qualifying stages. Instead, the world's elite - the two Southern Hemisphere giants (South Africa were excluded due to apartheid) and the Five Nations - were joined by nine other countries supposedly representing the rest of the world. But Japan were invited purely for economic reasons.

'Japan was crucial to the Rugby World Cup because of its television and broadcasting rights. It was pure commercial reasons that saw them get the invite,' said Jamie Scott, secretary-general of the Asian Rugby Union.

There was a lot of controversy when they were picked ahead of arch-rivals South Korea for the 1987 and 1991 tournaments. The Koreans were unhappy for they were the reigning Asian champions - from 1986 to 1992 - having secured a hat-trick of titles.

It was only in September 1992, in Seoul, that Japan regained their crown.

Korea rightly claimed that the Rugby World Cup organisers were wrong to invite Japan for the first two tournaments as representatives of Asia when they were the champions. You can't fault the Korean logic. But the RWC gave two hoots to logic when what really mattered was commercial gain.

For the first two World Cups, Japan fielded homegrown players and found themselves outclassed.

So in 1995, they used a smattering of foreign talent, a couple of Samoans and one Fijian playing corporate rugby in Japan.

The All Blacks still brushed aside such puny opposition, romping to a 145-17 victory, the biggest win in World Cup history.

Wishing to erase memories of that debacle, the Japanese Rugby Football Union decided soon after that the only way to be competitive on the world stage would be to beef up their team with more foreigners.

And this time they went in search of the best - players from New Zealand. The 1999 World Cup team had five New Zealanders and one Fijian. Of course, the JRFU was helped by the IRB's three-year eligibility rule, which is one of the most flexible covenants in world sport.

The JRFU tried to come to terms with ditching its nationalist policy - even the captaincy was given to a foreigner, centre Andrew McCormick - by saying that this was the only way to raise standards.

'We can only improve our rugby by playing with foreign players. There are certain skills which Japanese players are lacking at the moment and we want to learn.

'Of course, the ideal situation would be to field a full national team,' JRFU chairman Zen Shirai told me soon after Japan had qualified for the World Cup by winning last year's Asian Championships in Singapore.

But the experiment has ended in crushing defeat. Nothing has changed. How the Japanese media will react remains to be seen. But don't be surprised if Japan field a homegrown side at the next World Cup.

The best course of action for Japan would be to continue using foreign players to raise the level of their domestic competition. But when it comes to the world stage, they should stick to local players. After all, there is no real substitute for nationalistic passion.