Japan Rugby Club talks exclusively to Sunwolves and NTT Communications Shining Arcs centre Shane Gates on life with Japan, the Sunwolves and potentially representing the Brave Blossoms at Rugby World Cup 2019.
NTT Communications Shining Arcs achieve their best ever Top League finish last season after ending the campaign in fifth, and will be aiming to break into the top four championship round this year.
With a strong pack consisting of Sunwolves’ Shokei Kin and Willie Britz, along with Melbourne Rebels’ Amanaki Mafi, forwards coach Naoya Okubo will be keen to address problems in the scrum that saw the side post the lowest scrum success-rate in the Top League last season (88%).
Elton Jantjies, who finished top points’ scorer in Super Rugby this season, will start at no.10, alternating with Sunwolves stand off Jumpei Ogura. Elsewhere in the backs, head coach Dave Penney will be praying that young centre Takuya Ishibashi maintains his fine form last season, that saw him beat the second-most defenders in the Top League in 2016-17.
Ishibashi could be one of many players that Japan head coach Jamie Joseph casts an eagle eye on ahead of the November tests.
A new year, a new era for Japanese rugby? Perhaps not as appetizing as 2015 (World Cup) or 2016 (birth of the Sunwolves), but there is still plenty of excitement around Japanese rugby in 2017, with Sunwolves, a slightly restructured 2017 Top League campaign and Japan tests to look forward to. More co-operation between Sunwolves and the Japan national team is already evident, with Jamie Joseph and Filo Tiatia working closely to nurture those players who they see fit to play a part in two years' time. We take a look at four players, all 25 years of age of younger, who could make their big break in 2017.
Timothy Lafaele (Coca-Cola)
Lafaele was rewarded for his impressive displays in the Top League this season with his first call-up for Japan in November, making his international test debut in the latter stages against Argentina in Tokyo. The Samoan-born back is one of just two players to not miss a single minute of the 2016 Top League campaign to date (other is NTT Com’s Jumpei Ogura), as he continues to orchestrate the Coca-Cola back line, making more carries (126), metres (583), offloads (13) and beating more defenders (46) than any other player at the Kyushu club. Jamie Joseph and Filo Tiatia have clearly identified Lafaele as one for the 2019 Rugby World Cup, with his recent inclusion in Sunwolves’ 2017 Super Rugby squad ensuring that the 25-year-old will be tested at the highest level in the months to come.
Takuya Ishibashi (NTT Com)
Ishibashi grabbed a brace of tries in Japan’s thrashing of Hong Kong in May 2016, and can perhaps consider himself unfortunate not to have been called upon by Jamie Joseph for the November tests. Only Yamaha’s Viliami Tahitu’a (80) has beaten more defenders than Ishibashi in the Top League this season, while only Ricoh no.8 Matsuhashi and Tahitu’a have made more carries than the 24-year-old this term.
It comes as no surprise that Ishibashi sees a lot of the ball at no.13 given NTT Com average the fewest kicks in play per game in the league (16.8). Ishibashi has a good understanding with fly-half Jumpei Ogura, and has benefitted from playing alongside Elton Jantijies in the centres in recent weeks. Sunwolves are still short of a couple of centres, so don’t rule out Filo Tiatia calling up the NTT Com youngster in the months to come.
Tatsuro Owada (NEC)
In his first season of professional rugby after becoming the latest product from the Teikyo University factory of rugby, Owada has taken to the Top League like a duck to water, with only Kubota back row Pieter Labuschagne recording a higher tackle success-rate (96.7%, 176 completed) than the NEC flanker (94.9%, 131 completed) among players to have made 100+ tackles this season. Those 131 successful tackles (7th league-wide) look all the more impressive when you take into account Owada has been on pitch for just 639 minutes this term, the fewest among the 31 players to have made 100+ tackles this season. Owada therefore averages a tackle every 4 mins, 53 seconds this season - the best rate among all players to have played 200+ minutes this term.
Only two Japanese flankers have won more turnovers than Owada too this term, once again an impressive statistic when considering his limited playing time this campaign. The 24-year-old may not be on Jamie Joseph and Filo Tiatia’s horizon’s just yet, but it will only be a matter of time before he appears on their radars if he maintains his fine performances in the latter stages of the season.
Shuhei Matsuhashi (Ricoh)
You wouldn’t naturally assume Matsuhashi is in his maiden season of professional rugby based on his fine displays for Ricoh this season. At just 180cm (under 5ft11), he doesn’t have the natural physical appearance of a ‘traditional no.8’ either, with his rivals for the Brave Blossoms number eight jersey having a 9cm (Amanaki Mafi) or 10cm (Michael Leitch) height advantage over the Meiji University graduate. The 23-year-old has been the conductor of an impressive Ricoh scrum season, with only Coca-Cola (8.3) and NEC (8.2) winning more scrums per game on average than the Tokyo club (8.1). No forward has made more metres than Matsuhashi has in the Top League this campaign (712); he also tops the rankings at Ricoh for offloads, carries and turnovers won. We certainly look forward to seeing him compete against the best in Super Rugby this season.