Boots and all

Japan aren’t all they’re cracked up to be ahead of Asia Rugby Championship clash, are they?

Hong Kong searching high and low for positives as they prepare to lock horns with their long-time nemesis

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 May, 2017, 11:04am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 May, 2017, 11:04am

The good news – 15s rugby is back and Hong Kong get a fresh start after an ultimately disappointing sevens campaign. The bad news – Japan.

It’s not exactly groundbreaking stuff, but again Hong Kong are in for a tough time of it from their long-time nemesis as they kick off their Asia Rugby Championship tilt in Tokyo this weekend.

At first look, the structure of this year’s tournament – which sees teams play each other home and away in a two-week block rather than staggered across the six-week tournament like in the past – makes it even harder than usual for Hong Kong.

Whereas last year Hong Kong met Japan on home soil on the second weekend of the ARC after Japan and South Korea opened proceedings the week prior, this year Hong Kong must travel to Tokyo and play a Japan team bristling after two games against the Koreans.

For a minute, everything looked positive. Japan were anything but convincing in their opening match, beating South Korea 47-29.

To put that in perspective, last year they belted them 85-0 and 60-3, whereas Hong Kong where far more competitive.

So on that gauge, Leigh Jones’ men were in with a sniff to push Japan for the first time in a long, long time.

But then Japan coach Jamie Joseph had to go and ruin it. The former All Black came out swinging, giving his side a whack for lacking passion and commitment.

The result? A Japan side featuring eight changes to their starting 15 gave South Korea an almighty 80-10 shellacking.

So with normal transmission resumed, it is time for Hong Kong to look for other positives. Something, anything to give them confidence against a team that reins supreme in Asia regardless of who they field.

A good starting point is that only 10 of the players that started for Japan in last year’s ARC – where the Brave Blossoms saw off Jones’ men 38-3 in Hong Kong and 59-17 in Tokyo – have played so far in this year’s tournament.

Surely a good thing? Joseph named 16 uncapped players in his initial 36-man squad. That sort of inexperience and turnover must make for some vulnerability within the squad that a Hong Kong side more advanced than South Korea can exploit, mustn’t it?

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Maybe, but the fact Japan entered last year’s ARC without a single player in their squad that had featured in the World Cup just over six months earlier suggests that perhaps they’re adept at dealing with change.

On top of this, World Cup winger Akihito Yamada came into the Japan side for the weekend’s match against South Korea, scoring a try.

Not only was Yamada a member of the Japan team that defeated South Africa in that momentous World Cup upset, he also led the Sunwolves for tries in last year’s Super Rugby, scoring nine to finish only two off top scorer Israel Folau.

Not a bad addition to the side and food for thought for Jones. Moreso, Shota Emi is also waiting in the wings as he makes his way back from a rib injury.

One of the Sunwolves best this season, Joseph has said the second ARC game against Hong Kong is likely to kick-start Emi’s comeback.

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All of this – and that the experienced Keisuke Uchida and Shokei Kin are in the Japan squad but are yet to play – suggests that the Brave Blossoms are likely to field a stronger side than last year. Not to worry, there must be something else Jones can draw optimism from.

The fact that Japan have a new coach? Nope, Joseph has settled in well and is certainly no mug, having lead the Highlanders to the 2015 Super Rugby title.

The chance of another washout, a la the Aberdeen fiasco of 2015? Can’t see it, considering both games are on the artificial turf of Hong Kong Football Club.

That Hong Kong are coming in fresh? Unlikely. Japan shouldn’t be too banged up after one, hardly getting out of second gear in an unconvincing win and two, hardly getting out of second gear in a convincing win.

How about this? Hong Kong will head to Tokyo this week knowing Japan are going to give them both barrels.

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But the following week, they’ll be better for the run when they welcome a Japan side that will be fronting up for the fourth consecutive Saturday, and are on the road.

The perfect time to pounce? Well if not, I guess there is always the two matches against South Korea to keep everyone keen.