Japan players draw strength from tragedy
Japan began their World Cup campaign in earnest on Friday with the 40-strong squad gathered at a training camp in Miyazaki on southern Kyushu island giving comfort and hope to two players who lost their homes in last month's tsunami.
Tighthead prop Kensuke Hatakeyama and second-rower Shinya Makabe lost all their possessions in the tsunami triggered by the devastating 9.0 earthquake that struck Japan last month.
'We were thinking of postponing our camp, the first step in our World Cup campaign, but the two players with families in the affected zone insisted that we go ahead and said they also wanted to take part in the camp,' said Japan head coach John Kirwan (pictured).
Japan's first 15-a-side international assignment since the tragedy will be at the HSBC Asian Five Nations Top Five competition when they take on Hong Kong at the Hong Kong Football Club on April 30.
Former All Blacks winger Kirwan said carrying on with life was the best solution for a nation which was struggling to come to terms with the disaster that left at least 28,000 people dead or missing.
'Luckily for Hatakeyama and Makabe, their families and dear ones are okay. Both of them said we need to show some positivity and get the country back on its feet, so we are carrying on,' Kirwan said.
'But our thoughts go out to those who lost loved ones in what has been a terrible tragedy. I was in Italy when it happened and watching it unfold on television it was like watching a movie. I couldn't believe it.'
In town for last weekend's Hong Kong Sevens, Kirwan revealed that the squad of 40 players are his final choices for the World Cup in New Zealand where the Brave Blossoms are drawn in Pool A with New Zealand, France, Tonga and Canada.
'This is our strongest selection and we will be using players from this squad for the Asian Five Nations,' Kirwan said. 'I will be working with these players only, I won't have anyone coming from outside.'
Not good news for Hong Kong who will be first-up to face the brunt of the Asian superpower as they take the first step on the road to what Japan rugby authorities hope will be a quick healing process for the country.
'The Asian Five Nations will be very useful for us as this will allow us to get our combinations right as we build up to the World Cup.' Kirwan said. 'This tournament isn't a distraction to our preparations, in fact it gives me one extra month with the players which will be useful.'
Apart from Hong Kong, Japan will also take on the United Arab Emirates (in Dubai), Kazakhstan (in Bangkok) and Sri Lanka. This latter game was to be played in Tokyo but is now likely to be switched to Colombo.
'After the A5N, we will take part in the Pacific Nations Cup, before tests against the US and Italy before going to the World Cup,' Kirwan said.
Japan has won only once in the World Cup - defeating Zimbabwe in the 1991 edition - and came close last time when they were held to a 12-12 draw by Canada. Kirwan has high hopes this time round.
'Our goal is to win two games in New Zealand. If we do this, we automatically qualify for the the 2015 tournament,' Kirwan said. 'But we have set big goals for the future. In 2019, when Japan hosts the World Cup, we should aim to win. Just being happy to host it will be a mistake.'
That journey begun with a pall of sorrow hanging over the team. Kirwan hopes victory in the coming months for his players will put a smile back on the face of their countrymen.
'They want to honour their families and the people who have been affected by giving some hope,' Kirwan added.