John Kirwan might have traded pizza for sushi, but the former All Blacks star still has a ravenous appetite for the game and is excited about the new challenge that confronts him - taking Japan to the World Cup and transforming them into a team who are more than a mouthful for the opposition. Kirwan, who played in the inaugural World Cup in 1987 for the All Blacks on the wing, was in charge of Italy when the tournament was played last, in 2003. But his star has been on the wane in Rome, and when a month ago he got a call asking if he wished to coach Japan at the 2007 World Cup, he accepted the offer promptly. Earlier this year, the Italian Rugby Federation had rescinded Kirwan's contract after a disappointing Six Nations campaign, where Italy failed to win a match. So Kirwan was at a loose end, looking for work and fresh challenges. Naturally, he accepted the offer from the Japanese Rugby Union, which had sacked Frenchman Jean-Pierre Elissalde after he had also taken up the responsibility of coaching a French club side. The Frenchman's dismissal opened the door for Kirwan, and in the true style of all great wings - he played 63 tests for the All Blacks scoring 35 tries (a record when he retired in 1994) - Kirwan saw his chance and grabbed it in a flash. 'It is a great challenge for me and one I'm looking forward to. I was very surprised when I got the call and I had no hesitation in accepting the job. I believe Japan will qualify for the World Cup, but what is important is that once we get there, we win a couple of matches. That is the real goal,' says Kirwan. Japan have represented Asia at all previous World Cups. In the beginning, when the International Rugby Board didn't have a qualifying programme in place, Japan were invited simply on reputation and due to the hard work of their grand old man of the game, Shiggy Konno, who had been on the council for a long time looking after Asia's - and Japan's - interests. These days it is not as easy getting into the World Cup. But Japan are still the top side in Asia by a long way. Kirwan knows that well, having played corporate rugby for NEC from 1999 to 2001, after he had retired his black jersey. Now the task he faces is to see that Japan take the next step - gain the respect of their World Cup peers. 'It will be difficult. Time is running short and I have less than 11 months to prepare Japan. But I'm confident. This team are not short of confidence and they are quick to learn. I'm sure there will be rapid improvement in the next few months,' Kirwan said. Having had no say in picking this current squad, Kirwan will pick an expanded 40-strong squad next April after watching Japan's corporate teams in action this winter. 'But my first target is to see that Japan qualify for the World Cup. I want to take one step at a time,' said the Kiwi, who stands at 1.91 metres and weighed 97kg in his playing days. Soon after taking over, Kirwan watched an Australian Prime Minister's XV trounce Japan 61-19. But one week later, last Saturday, the team bounced back with a spirited performance against Queensland Reds in a narrow 29-22 loss. 'I was very disappointed we lost. But I told the players I am very proud of them. We have started slowly, but we are improving all the time. We have set a high goal for the World Cup, and by the time it comes, I'm confident we will have a side who can win two games,' Kirwan said. If, as expected, Japan win the final Asian qualifying round - against Hong Kong and South Korea, who they play on Saturday at Football Club - they will be drawn with Australia, Wales, Fiji and Canada in the 20-team World Cup. It is the latter two countries that Japan have targeted as must-win games. In five previous appearances at the World Cup, Japan have only beaten fellow-minnows Zimbabwe, 52-8, in 1991. Kirwan scored an astounding length-of-the-field solo try against Italy in 1987 when New Zealand kicked off the inaugural World Cup. The All Blacks went on to win the tournament. Kirwan, a proud holder of a winner's medal - New Zealand have failed to repeat that feat since - knows it will take more than individual brilliance from the Japanese to create a little bit of history. 'Japan will have to concentrate on getting the basics right. It will all be about getting the scrum and the lineout up to international standards, and making sure we are competitive in the rucks. Primary possession and then retaining the ball will be of paramount importance,' he said. Soon after arriving in Japan - 'my second homecoming' - Kirwan said he wanted to instil the Samurai Spirit in his players. 'I want to find that 'Samurai Spirit' that all the players can identify with,' Kirwan said in an interview with the Daily Yomiuri. 'The level of rugby has improved greatly in Japan in the last 10 years, and they did well at the last World Cup. But recent performances at national level have not been good.' The low point in Japan's World Cup history, ironically, came against the All Blacks, who humiliated them 145-17 at the 1995 event in South Africa. And this, too, was against New Zealand's midweek side, many of whom were out to prove a point. That scoreline had profound repercussions for Japanese rugby with the sport's image being terribly hurt back home, resulting in the development of the game being slowed. The negative attitudes of the Japanese public enamoured with football and baseball, fuelled by the country's mainstream media which is interested only in winners, was somewhat diluted by the Cherry Blossoms' performance at the 2003 World Cup when they were dubbed as the 'best of the lesser teams'. The lack of serious opposition in Asia has forced Japan to look elsewhere for formidable competition. The IRB has stepped in recently as they bid to provide the so-called second-tier nations with regular competition, resulting in Japan playing for the last couple of years in the Super Powers Cup along with the United States, Canada and Russia. This year Japan also took part in the tougher Pacific Five Nations, finishing bottom to the Junior All Blacks, Samoa, Tonga and Fiji. Kirwan - who backed Japan's failed bid to host the 2011 World Cup (which New Zealand won) - hopes that soon Japan will be able to hold their own against the likes of Samoa and Tonga, before one day developing into a true world force. 'I had a fantastic time in Italy during my stint there. I am a little bit disappointed that I cannot see what I put in place there come to fruition. But all my focus is now on Japan,' said Kirwan. Kirwan, who coached Italy from 2002 until April this year, is married to an Italian and has three children. He speaks fluent Italian, but realises it is now time to hone his passable Japanese 'They are a good bunch of players and I'm looking forward to improving Japan's stock in the world. I'm really happy about this opportunity. Taking Japanese rugby up to the next level is a big challenge - and one I relish,' he added. As an All Black, JK never shirked responsibility. He still lives by that code.