Giant-slayer Japan faces a tough road at the Rugby World Cup

Japan has been a fan favorite at the last two Rugby World Cups for its underdog victories over top-tier teams.

Its win over the Springboks in 2015 has passed into lore (and a movie) as the Miracle of Brighton and its victories over Scotland and Ireland in 2019 caused jubilation in a World Cup hosted by Japan.

As the Brave Blossoms head into the upcoming edition in France, they do so with opponents alerted. They no longer have the advantages of surprise or underestimation.

At the same time, they come into the tournament on a run of poor form, having won only one of four tests this season and only four of 18 tests since hosting the last World Cup.

Rugby in Japan has gone through foundational changes since 2019, designed in part to capitalize on the success of the World Cup which won over a broader domestic audience.

The inauguration of Japan League One as successor to the former Japan Top League as the professional domestic competition has attracted some of the world's best players and many of Japan’s largest corporations as sponsors.

The ultimate aims are for the league to match any in Europe and to provide the best possible competition for local players to raise the standard of the Japan team.

Those benefits might not yet have materialized but the fact that many of the top Springboks, leading Wallabies and notable All Blacks have played in Japan over the last two seasons means there has been an exposure for the Japan players to the best in the world. If the Japan team itself has not yet matured, it at least has a basis of experience on which it can grow.

It has been drawn in a difficult pool with an underperforming England, which is coming off a loss to Fiji, Argentina and a Samoa lineup coming off a narrow loss to top-ranked Ireland. There also is a strong basis of experience in the Japan squad which includes at least 13 members who played at the World Cup four years ago. The last few members were confirmed after Japan’s loss to Italy in the last warmup.

Beyond those players, prop Keita Inagaki and outside back Kotaro Matsushima were members of the 2015 squad in England. Hooker Shota Horie and former captain Michael Leitch played in New Zealand in 2011, and both are set to represent Japan at their fourth World Cup.

There are also two uncapped players — prop Sione Halasili and scrumhalf Kenta Fukuda — and nine players have fewer than 10 test caps of experience.

Japan, necessarily, has had to revise its goals. Beating top-ranked teams no longer is enough. Reaching the quarterfinals already has been done. So Japan has to be more ambitious.

“We’re going into the World Cup to win it,” coach Jamie Joseph said. “If you can get to the quarterfinals, anything can happen. So our first step is to make the top eight and take things from there.

“We understand that’s a massive challenge but the team takes a lot of confidence from what we achieved in 2019, surprising the world by the way we played and how we went through our pool unbeaten. It’s our challenge to do that again."

Japan’s matches this season have pinpointed problems at set-pieces, issues with discipline, and goalkicking shortcomings.

“Recently we’ve had some tough results with a couple of red cards and some serious injuries to some senior players that have really affected the team,” Joseph said. “But at the same time it’s given us great preparation for the World Cup."

Japan showed in two home tests against France in 2022 that it can hang in during matches against top opponents and has the ability to strike against the run of play. It has depth in key positions and players whose versatility works in a World Cup context.

“In selecting the squad we’ve worked around the fact that we can’t replace or take more than 33 players so we need to make sure all bases are covered,” Joseph said. “What that looks like in terms of specialist positions, we’re taking nine front rowers and three specialist nines and 10s.

“So just under half the squad cover only five positions. In terms of the final selection, it reduces our options so we’ve selected players who can focus on one position but also have the ability to play in another one or two positions as well.”

Leitch is still a linchpin of the side while Horie brings 71 tests of experience and fullback Kotaro Matsushima 50 tests. Rikiya Matsuda, Seungsin Lee and Jumpei Ogura provide a range of playmaking options at flyhalf.

“We have a really attacking-based game using our fitness, the skill, the speed and a little bit unorthodox compared to the teams that we’re playing against,” Joseph said. “We know what England are going to bring, we know what Argentina are going to bring. They’re going to put us under a lot of pressure, but we create pressure in different ways.”


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