Faltering Japan look for Asia Rugby Championship jump-start
Japan will use the Asia Rugby Championship to try to regain some lost momentum since last year’s Rugby World Cup heroics, beginning with Saturday’s home opener against South Korea.
The Brave Blossoms, who sensationally won three pool matches at the 2015 RWC in England, have drafted in several players from Tokyo-based Super Rugby side the Sunwolves for a game they will be expected to win comfortably.
Openside flanker Taiyo Ando, involved in last weekend’s 36-28 victory over the Jaguares, will start alongside Sunwolves squad-mates Kengo Kitagawa, Futoshi Mori, Kazuhiko Usami, Ryohei Yamanaka and Hajime Yamashita.
Japan will be led by interim coach Ryuji Nakatake as the Asian champions look to rule by committee before former All Black Jamie Joseph takes over in August, once he sees out his Highlanders contract in New Zealand.
Before that Sunwolves coach Mark Hammett will take the national 15s helm for three Tests in June, including a pair of home Tests against Scotland – an arrangement former Japan coach Eddie Jones, who is now in charge of England, has blasted as “crazy”.
Momentum has stalled for Japan since their dazzling England 2015 effort, which included a stunning 34-32 upset of two-time world champions South Africa – widely regarded as the biggest shock in the tournament’s history.
To underline the fact, a new-look Brave Blossoms squad assembled for their home regional contest features 17 uncapped players and not one member of last year’s RWC outfit with many unavailable due to overseas club commitments.
Tokai University student Ryuji Noguchi, already being spoken of as the “next Ayumu Goromaru”, will look to stake his claim for a regular place.
“I feel great responsibility,” said the 20-year-old fullback on being compared to Japan’s World Cup hero.
“I hope to be able to try and match Goromaru-san, take the initiative and play with pride.”
Japan have won 31 of 32 matches in the Asian tournament and its forerunner, the Asian Five Nations – their perfect record tarnished only by last year’s match against Hong Kong which was declared a draw after a downpour.
The holders will be overwhelming favourites to win a 24th Asian title since 1969 against the South Koreans and Hong Kong, but failure to post cricket-score wins could spark criticism after they failed to build on the success achieved under Jones.
Japan broke into the world’s top 10 for the first time under the Australian coach and will be contesting world ranking points in the home-and-away Asian Top Three competition.
But the progress they made over the past four years is in danger of unravelling and only a convincing showing in the Asian Rugby Championship is likely to silence the doubters, at least until Joseph finally takes up his post.
South Korea won three continental titles in a row during their heyday in the 1980s and were last crowned Asian champions in 2002, but have rarely threatened since.
Hong Kong have never won the regional title but finished runners-up last year and in 2014.
The competition runs for just over a month with Hong Kong’s first outing a home fixture against Japan on May 7.
2016 ARC match schedule
30/04: Japan v South Korea (Yokohama)
07/05: Hong Kong v Japan (HKFC)
14/05: South Korea v Hong Kong (Incheon)
21/05: South Korea v Japan (Incheon)
28/05: Japan v Hong Kong (Tokyo)
04/06: Hong Kong v South Korea (HKFC)