Rugby World Cup year has begun for the Brave Blossoms as they this week embarked upon the first of their official training camps as ‘Rugby World Cup Training Squad (RWCTS).’
The likes of captain Michael Leitch, Kotaro Matsushima and Timothy Lafaele are part of a strong Japan squad that endured a week-long training camp at Canon Eagles’ training ground in Machida, Tokyo.
Eight players that impressed Jamie Joseph in last weekend’s charity game between a Top League XV against Clermont have all been added to the initial 20-man squad announced by the Brave Blossoms head coach last year.
Joseph was not at the training camp himself this week though, as he chose to fly to England to visit Eddie Jones along with Sunwolves head coach Tony Brown, to observe their Six Nations training session.
Koki Yamamoto, Kosuke Horikoshi, Isileli Nakajima, Yusuke Kajimura, Sione Teaupa and Ryohei Yamanaka, who all featured for Japan in tests in 2018 have been added to the RWCTS. Scrum-half Atsushi Hiwasa, who played a pivotal role at RWC 2015, has also been added to the squad as he looks to earn a shock recall to the national time. Uncapped hooker Takuya Kitade also joins the squad after impressing Jamie Joseph in the match against Clermont.
Panasonic stand-off Takuya Yamasawa, the first Japanese player to appear in the Top League having not gone through the traditional university system, has also earned a place in the now more than 30-man RWCTS, as he looks to give competition to Yu Tamura for the up until now uncontested no.10 jersey.
Shota Horie, while not officially announced by JRFU as part of RWCTS, has been seen training with the team as he continues his comeback from a navicular fracture in the right foot. Timothy Lafaele and Lomano Lemeki have also both been training with the squad but not formally announced by the JRFU.
While players taking part in last week’s RWCTS, which featured the bulk of players expected to start against Russia for the first game of RWC 2019, are not expected to feature for Sunwolves in the early part of the season, there is a possibility that those top players could join up with the Super Rugby outfit in the latter part of the season.
On the relationship between both teams, Japan captain Michael Leitch said: "It's one team. (Being able to have matches as Sunwolves) is a huge advantage. Other teams only have the test window, whereas we can strengthen continuously for 9 months. Therefore, there are no excuses (when it comes to RWC 2019”.
Sunwolves will act as a feeder team for the Brave Blossoms in 2019, with players who could be in contention for a place in the Japan squad playing alongside overseas players. 38-year-old Luke Thompson, who appeared for the Brave Blossoms at RWC 2015, this week signed for Sunwolves and has not ruled out an appearance at RWC 2019 with Japan.
Amanaki Mafi, meanwhile, is training with NTT Communications Shining Arcs, his Top League club, with criminal proceedings ongoing regrading the alleged assault of a teammate at Melbourne Rebels last season. The JRFU are expected to make a decision on his future with the Brave Blossoms once criminal proceedings are concluded.
2019 is a big year for Japanese rugby with the nation set to host Asia's first Rugby World Cup. Here are our predictions for what will happen over the next 12 months:
1. BRAVE BLOSSOMS VENTURE OVERSEAS
2016 marked a minor watershed moment for Japanese players, with several players making the relatively rare move of joining an overseas club. Brave Blossoms’ exploits at RWC 2015 saw both Amanaki Mafi and Kensuke Hatakeyama move to the English Premiership with Bath and Newcastle respectively, while Kotaro Matsushima and Ayumu Goromaru signed for Australian franchises in Super Rugby.
Japanese players’ chances to play overseas have been limited these past couple of years due to the almost compulsory commitment to the Sunwolves and national team. However, given the uncertainty over the Japanese franchise’s future and the fact that they will no longer be pinned to the club, we could see an increase in Brave Blossoms moving overseas at the tail-end of 2019.
Having played four seasons for the Chiefs, Michael Leitch could be a prime candidate for a stint in Europe following what may be his final Rugby World Cup. Kenki Fukuoka and Kazuki Himeno are players who could also both benefit from pastures new by testing themselves on a bigger stage.
2. WHISPER IT QUIETLY
Those in the southern hemisphere will be familiar with the nature of Japanese rugby crowds through Sunwolves in Super Rugby. However, the atmosphere at Rugby World Cup games this year may come as a shock to those from the northern hemisphere witnessing a rugby game in Japan for the first time.
Japanese rugby crowds are not boisterous for the most part and tries will be greeted by a cheer and ripple of applause, which may surprise foreign fans. Expect plenty of ‘SO RESPECTFUL’ or ‘RUGBY WORLD CUP ATMOSPHERE LIKE NO OTHER’ to be crossed off your commentary bingo cards this autumn.
3. TOP LEAGUE REFORM?
A number of key Japan internationals will seemingly be limited to bit-part roles for Sunwolves this season as the JRFU effectively wrap them in cotton wool to ensure they are all fit for Rugby World Cup in September.
Stars such as Michael Leitch, Kazuki Himeno and Kenki Fukuoka have not joined the team’s first pre-season training camp, while the likes of Kotaro Matsushima and Timothy Lafaele are yet to be announced as Sunwolves players for the 2019 Super Rugby season.
While Sunwolves will play a record five games in Tokyo this season, the absence of core Japan players from the side will not draw in locals, with most fans unfamiliar with some of the names on the teamsheet.
4. TIME FOR CHANGE IN THE TOP LEAGUE
The introduction of the Top Challenge League last season, a second-tier national competition, saw the three regional leagues merge into one feeder division to the Top League. However, there is no guarantee that the side that finishes top of the Top Challenge League will gain promotion to the Top League, with the top four sides facing the bottom four of the Top League in a one-off play-off match.
There is a clear split in the Top League with the same handful of teams struggling at the foot of the Top League season and alternating between the Top Challenge League each season. A 16-team format Top League is simply not healthy for the long-term competitiveness of Japanese rugby.
Rumours of a Korean league joining the Top League in a reduced number of teams format have been rife for the past few years and we may see a reform following Rugby World Cup 2019 to give fans better spectacles of games.
5. SAYONARA, JAMIE?
Following Japan’s heroics at RWC 2015 and subsequent impressive displays against France and England to name but a few, there is a heap of expectation from within the JRFU for Jamie Joseph and Japan to reach the knockout stage of the Rugby World Cup.
While the Sunwolves have improved considerably under his stewardship and he has seemingly transformed the Brave Blossoms defence with the aid of John Plumtree and Ben Herring, the JRFU are notoriously hard to please and the results this autumn will ultimately decide his Japan future.
Ayumu Goromaru and Kensuke Hatakeyama were two of Japan’s stand-out players during Rugby World Cup 2015. A duo of Brave Blossoms that were in the same grade at university for Waseda, and who epitomised the Brave Blossoms spirit that captured the hearts of neutrals four years ago.
Fast forward to 2019 and neither stand a chance of making the Japan squad for this year’s Rugby World Cup, both failing to make a single appearance for the Brave Blossoms across the past two years. Just how did two of Japan’s stars from RWC 2015 see their chances of appearing in a home RWC all but disappear?
Goromaru did not necessarily need Rugby World Cup 2019, rather Rugby World Cup 2019 needed him. Japan needed a tried and tested hero to pin their hopes on, they needed a familiar face to market the tournament to non-rugby fans, they needed his profile to elevate the tournament.
Statues were dedicated to Goromaru, fans flocked to stadiums just to see him and television shows ultimately made him the face of rugby in Japan. It therefore seems inconceivable that the then poster boy of Japanese rugby would come to play no further part for the Brave Blossoms and that his final appearance for Japan would come in Gloucester in Japan’s final pool game of Rugby World Cup 2015.
His stock was at an all-time high at the end of 2015 following his 58 points at Japan’s most successful Rugby World Cup to date, amassing countless sponsorship deals and linked with several high-profile clubs overseas. Queensland Reds was his destination from 2016 though, opting not to link up with Sunwolves in their maiden Super Rugby season.
Goromaru's stint in Brisbane was short-lived. Fatigue took its toll and injury limited the full-back to just eight appearances in the 2016 Super Rugby season. This was a player who had now played rugby continuously for almost 12 months, following up RWC 2015 with a truncated Top League season, of which he was crowned top points scorer, before making the move down under.
Simultaneously, Kotaro Matsushima’s impressive performances at full-back for Suntory Sungoliath and the Brave Blossoms had seen the youngster stake claim to the number 15 shirt under Jamie Joseph, while Yu Tamura had consolidated himself as the Brave Blossoms’ kicker.
Goromaru was no longer on Jamie Joseph’s radar and only slipped further down the pecking order with a move to Toulon in autumn 2016, which saw him appear just five times for the TOP 14 outfit.
Hatekayama, like Goromaru, moved overseas in 2016, following up his second Rugby World Cup with a loan move to Newcastle Falcons after the conclusion of the 2015-16 Top League season, becoming just the second Japanese player after Kensuke Iwabuchi to feature in England’s top domestic rugby competition.
Many thought that the loan spell would materialise into a permanent move overseas. However, the prop returned to Suntory at the end of the campaign after making five Premiership appearances.
Unlike Goromaru, Hatekayama remained in contention briefly after his stint overseas, starting each of Japan’s June and November internationals in 2016, in what turned out to be his final appearances in the red and white jersey to date.
Realising that his time with Brave Blossoms was perhaps nearing its end, Hatekayama became increasingly focused on off-field activities, setting up the Japan Rugby Players Association (JRPA) in 2016 together with former Japan player Toshiaki Hirase.
The organisation aimed to improve communication between stakeholders in Japanese rugby, namely clubs and players, in addition to spreading the word of rugby and ensuring that players and clubs make contributions towards society.
Hatekayama was appointed chairman of the organisation in 2017, and is a large reason why he has featured so sparingly for club and country in the past 24 months.
While it is almost certain that Hatakeyama will play no part on the pitch at RWC 2019, it could be argued that his off-field efforts with the JRPA may provide a longer-lasting impact for players and Japanese rugby than the tournament itself.
Goromaru and Hatakeyama were hugely marketable prospects, a crucial factor that Sunwolves and the JRFU failed to spot. In the era of social media and mass sponsorship deals, it is no longer a player’s ability that should come into play when considering signings.
JRFU will regret not dedicating all resources at their disposal into keeping the duo in the country after RWC 2015. Stars such as Goromaru and Hatakeyama could have exponentially increased the domestic interest in the Sunwolves and had a trickle-down effect on the popularity of rugby in Japan ahead of a crucial few years for the sport in the country.
Japan head coach Jamie Joseph has named a strong side for the game against Russia this weekend, giving less experienced players a chance to prove themselves in the final test match before Rugby World Cup year.
Japan left their mark on Twickenham following their invigorating first-half performance against England, which saw them lead 15-10 at the break. Although they succumbed to a 35-15 defeat, Oliver Trenchard looks at the five big talking points for the Brave Blossoms.
No player epitomised the courageousness and braveness of Japan on Saturday more than Michael Leitch. The Toshiba back-row produced a gladiator performance in the greatest coliseum of rugby, reminiscent of that South Africa victory where he announced his arrival on the global stage. The 30-year-old made menacing runs and often made himself an option on the right wing alongside Akihito Yamada to reek havoc in the England defence. He was faultless in the line-out, majestically receiving, then offloading the ball to Tanaka. As captain, he opted to kick to touch in search of greater reward when three points could have been the easier option. His numbers speak for themselves: The most defenders beaten In the match (7), the joint-most clean breaks in the match alongside Kenki Fukuoka (5), more metres gained than any England player (88m) and not a single tackle missed. The Brave Blossoms are fortunate to have a captain like Leitch and should hope that his spirit and sheer tenacity rubs off on the younger players going into next year’s tournament.
If there were questions marks about Japan’s line-out after a few lost throws against New Zealand, they all but put those questions to bed against England with a superb set of line-outs led by Michael Leitch and hooker Atsushi Sakate, the latter in only his third year of professional rugby. The assortment of throws that the 25-year-old projected into the Twickenham air was reminiscent of the high-risk line-outs that Sunwolves have tried and tested since their inauguration into Super Rugby. A mixture of short, long, underarm and even one that purposely skipped the entire forwards and into the hands of the oncoming backs added to the gutsy and enthralling display that Japan treated the home faithful to.
Fumiaki Tanaka was key to Japan’s gameplan in the first half with his quick ball and pin-point delivery from the breakdown. He was at the breakdown fast and ensured that the ball was with the backs in lightening quick time to leave the England players chasing shadows. It came as a big surprise then that the experienced scrum half made way at the interval for the younger Yutaka Nagare. The replacement was clattered by the onrushing Mario Itoje less than five minutes into the second half after taking one too many steps at the ruck. It was that extra step Nagare took when picking up the ball at the breakdown that meant Japan were unable to find the same rhythm or play at the same tempo that they impressed with in the first 40 minutes. Tanaka, who had found himself drop down the pecking order under Jamie Joseph following Rugby World Cup 2015, may have just regained his spot as first-choice scrum half going into 2019.
The Blossoming Bromance
The centre combination of Timothy Lafaele and Ryoto Nakamura is developing into the most satisfying of bromances, not only due to their pre-match photos together on the Twickenham pitch. The duo are no stranger to one another having played alongside each other in the first half of the 2018 Super Rugby season for Sunwolves and appear to have reignited their partnership with some delightful interchanges of passes at times. It was no secret that Japan’s tactic lied with quick ball into the backs, underlined by both Lafaele and Nakamura enjoying 16 carries each, the most by any player on the Twickenham field. Nakamura was worthy of his try and in doing so made England fly-half George Ford look like a schoolboy. Both were resilient in defence, coming up as a line and picking their moments to savage the England backs. Indeed, Lafaele completed every tackle he attempted. Nakamura and Lafaele, complemented by full-back Will Tupou, who started alongside Lafaele against the All Blacks, will only benefit from playing together more in Super Rugby next season ahead of the Rugby World Cup.
Fukuoka, Yamada and Tupou
Kenki Fukuoka deserves his share of the plaudits too, not only for sharing his surname with his place of birth. He was the fastest player in a while to grace the Twickenham turf, turning on the gas on each occasion the ball reached his hands on the left wing. He regularly got Japan out of trouble on the rare occasions they found themselves pegged back inside their own half by latching onto a Lafaele kick or beating his man. The 26-year-old made a total of 132 metres over the gain line, the most by an opposing player at Twickenham in over two years – an indication of how influential the former Japan Sevens was in the match.
Yamada and Tupou also deserve a mention. The latter was deployed at full back by Joseph specifically to deal with the potential threat of high balls and was almost faultless in coping with that threat. Yamada, meanwhile, took his fair share of high balls and produced his characteristic magic feet that would not have been out of place at a dance revolution arcade machine.
Japan head coach Jamie Joseph has opted for experience in his Brave Blossoms team that will take on England in front of a sell-out 80,000 crowd at Twickenham on Saturday.
Familiar faces in Fumiaki Tanaka and Akihito Yamada, who announced their arrival on the international stage under then Brave Blossoms head coach Eddie Jones, are named in the starting XV together for the first time since June 2017. The duo come into the team at the expense of Sunwolves captain Yutaka Nagare and speedster Jamie Henry, who crossed the whitewash against the All Blacks two weeks ago.
The game against Jones' England marks a minor milestone for scrum half Tanaka, who is line to make his 69th test appearance for Japan to surpass Takashi Kikutani to become the Brave Blossoms' 5th-most capped player of all time.
Will Tupou is preferred at full-back to add physicality to deal with the high balls that Japan are expecting to face from England, while Ryoto Nakamura comes in at centre to make his first test start against a tier one nation.
In the pack, Suntory flanker Masakatsu Nishikawa is handed his first ever test start for Japan, meaning that the highly-tipped Kazuki Himeno moves from flanker to no.8. Captain Michael Leitch will make up the back row at blindside flanker.
There is also a Brave Blossoms return for prop Ji-won Koo who starts in the front row at the expense of Hiroshi Yamashita. There is one change in the second row from the team that faced New Zealand two weeks ago, with Uwe Helu replacing Samuele Anise.
World Rugby are set to announce China will host 2019 Rugby World Cup, following ‘significant and disturbing evidence’ from independent visits by Animal Welfare Organisations to venues that were set to host the tournament in Japan.
The sudden decision will come as a shock to most players, fans and officials, most notably Japan, who will now lose their place as a participating country at 2019 Rugby World Cup to China, ranked 68th in the world rankings. China will therefore become the lowest ranked nation to appear at Rugby World Cup.
Extensive research conducted at notable stadiums in the Kanto region that were in line to host 2019 Rugby World Cup, including Yokohama Stadium, Tokyo Stadium and Kumagaya Stadium indicated an abnormal level of underground mammals residing under the surface of the field. Widespread setts of the Asian Badger, a species predominantly native to parts of central Asia such as Mongolia and Kazakhstan, were found residing underneath the surface at some venues.
Guidance from the Japan Residential & Farm Union (JRFU), a NPO dedicated to protecting and safeguarding the lives of underground mammals in Japan and East Asia, issued a stern warning to World Rugby, which has not been taken lightly.
Under pressure from the JRFU and several other animal welfare charities, World Rugby will announce in the coming days the decision to move next year’s tournament to China. It is understood South Africa and USA were also candidates to host the competition at short notice, however, World Rugby were keen to keep the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Asia to grow the game in the continent.
It is no secret that World Rugby are keen to grow the game of rugby in Asia, with 140,986 children taking part in World Rugby’s Get into Rugby programme in 2017. Significant investment from Alisports has paved the way for numerous training facilities to built across the country. China Rugby Football Union are understood to be in discussions with Hong Kong Rugby Football Union about merging unions to create a stronger team to face Europe 2 in the opening game of the tournament in Guangzhou.
Iconic Welsh referee Nigel Owens has been named as an official for Japan's tests in June against Italy (x2) and Georgia.
The 46-year-old will take charge of the Brave Blossom's match against Georgia at Toyota Stadium on June 23rd, in addition to being assistant referee for the two tests against Italy.
Australian referee Nic Berry will officiate Japan v Italy at Oita Dome on June 9th, while New Zealand official Nick Briant will referee the same fixture in Kobe a week later.
Meanwhile, Japan referee Shuhei Kubo has been named as the official to take charge of Canada v Scotland on June 9th.
Japan head coach Jamie Joseph today announced his 33-man squad for June tests against Romania and Ireland. Michael Leitch returns to the team for the first time since the 2015 RWC, having opted to sit out of the 2016 Brave Blossoms fixtures, while Hendrik Tui is also named in the squad by Joseph.
Japan play host to Romania in Fukuoka on June 10th, before facing two tests against Ireland in Shizuoka and Tokyo in the following weeks.
Derek Carpenter, who has qualified to represent to Japan through residency, earns his first call-up to the Brave Blossoms team. There also first inclusions for William Tupou, Canon and Sunwolves front-row Yusuke Niwai and Suntory's Shota Emi.
Japan will assemble in Fukuoka for a week's training prior to the Romania test, before training at Shizuoka's Ecopa Stadium and then Tokyo for a week each.
Japan have announced four test matches for 2017, among them a first home meetings against Australia in November.
Fellow tier two nation Romania will take on the Brave Blossoms in Japan on June 10, before they face two clashes against Ireland on June 17 and 24. Japan have will look to build on an impressive record against Romania, a side against whom they have won four of their five tests.
One of those tests will be played at Chichibunomiya Rugby Stadium in Tokyo, we believe. Ajinomoto Stadium, which hosted Japan’s second test against Scotland in June 2016, is unlikely to be used due to match taking place half-way through the domestic football season, with FC Tokyo and Tokyo Verdy sharing the stadium.
The Wallabies will then visit Japan for a test on November 4, with a venue yet to be decided. Further tests against a tier two nation will be announced later in the new year.