Once upon a time there was France. Often it’s the All Blacks. Very often it is Fiji. For a while it was Argentina. But, since the last World Cup, it’s Japan. The Brave Blossoms have become the great artists of the game.
Japan is also important, as the international elite lacked variety. Since France became the eighth member of what is now World Rugby’s board in 1978, only Italy and Argentina have become full members, and their progress on the pitch has been mixed.
World Rugby was vindicated by its decision to award the 2019 World Cup, but they and the world game need Japanese rugby to capitalize on that success if they are to dine at the first table.
It is essential for that to have more matches like those last Saturday against the Lions and today against Ireland.
“Absolutely,” said Robbie Deans, Panasonic Wild Knights coach in the Top League since 2014. “They have a decent schedule this year, but they just need to keep doing it. These guys are going to grow naturally like they have throughout the Top League, but it’s about continuing to expose them.
To that end, Japan is returning to the Northern Hemisphere later this year, and The Irish Times understands that they have been lined up to complete Ireland’s fall schedule as well as games against the United States in Las Vegas, in New Zealand and Argentina, which means a return visit to the Aviva. Good product.
Fortunately, too, their domestic game is getting stronger, according to Deans, who is in a good position to judge. A former All Blacks fullback who had a brilliant coaching career with Canterbury, Crusaders (five Super Rugby titles) and Wallabies, five weeks ago he guided the Wild Knights to their fourth Top League title under his leadership by beating rivals Suntory Sungoliath, who had Eddie Jones as a consultant and Beauden Barrett at outhalf, by 31-26.
“I’ve lost two finals to them already and won two as well, but you tend to remember which ones you lose,” Deans said wryly. Speaking to the Irish Times from his home in north Canterbury, he and his wife Penny have been there for a month, including two weeks in quarantine, after two uninterrupted years in Japan.
He’s not complaining. “We went [Japan] for a few years and we’re still here. They have three children, Sam, Annabel and Sophie, all based in Sydney, where they will all reunite in September for Annabel’s wedding.
This year’s Top League was way above the level of anything that has happened before and it will continue. There’s a lot more depth now
In this year’s Top League, there were over 150 foreign-born players, with New Zealand providing 41% of them, including seven from their World Cup squad. Six from the winning South African squad also played there, as did former Irish Under-21 player Paddy Butler, with Yamaha Jubilo.
Teams operate on a quota, with only five foreign players (defined as non-Asian passport holders) allowed on a match day squad, of which only three can be on the pitch at a time.
Twelve of the 16 clubs had head coaches abroad. Among the eight New Zealanders were Deans, Todd Blackadder, Mike Cron and Cory Brown. Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen are on Kobe and Toyota’s payrolls as directors of rugby respectively, Eddie Jones holds a similar position as a consultant at Suntory, while Michael Cheika will do the same for NEC Green Rockets of the year. next. In addition, there are 23 foreign assistant coaches in the 16 clubs, including 15 Kiwis.
Until now, the competition has been semi-professional, with most of the employees of the Japanese players’ company, and therefore jobs around their rugby commitments. Next season will see a rebranded, fully professional league.
Anyway, “the level is good” according to Deans, “and that’s not something you would have said five years ago. This year’s Top League was way above the level of anything that has happened before and it will continue. There is a lot more depth now. There are really half a dozen teams capable of fighting and winning the “comp” which, again, was not the case five years ago.
“In terms of physics, there is a lot more work to be done now. Eddie [Jones] was probably the first to focus on gym work in order to make Suntory and then the Brave Blossoms more physically competitive internationally.
Deans also cites the large number of former international coaches and the Sunwolves’ four-year stint in Super Rugby.
“While it was not a success in itself, it was successful in that they brought back learnings and habits that are transferred to their own teams. “
Therefore, Deans was not surprised by Japan’s victories over Ireland and Scotland in the World Cup.
“I knew it was a possibility. I knew they would play out of their skin and if they sniffed they would be hard to deny because they had enough in the squad, enough X factor, enough skill and they would be able to play to the beat. he is authorized to do so.
“There was an element of surprise in Brighton,” he adds, referring to Japan’s even more astonishing victory over the Springboks in the 2015 World Cup “and there was again some surprise at the level at which they were able to play.
“This bubble has indeed burst now, but the other point of difference now is that there is more depth. There are more players coming to streaming, and Jamie [Joseph] will have selection challenges before 2023.
“The group will evolve out of necessity and if it makes these decisions in a timely manner and exposes the next generation to the experience it needs, then it will be perfectly capable of taking it to another level.”
Deans says the Top League is now “pumping the players up” and while he would never take credit for it, the Wild Knights have provided seven members of the Japanese World Cup squad and have seven players in the game. current team.
Queensland-born backrower Jack Cornelsen, who qualified by residence in November last year and made his debut against the Lions on the bench, is one example. His father Greg scored four tries against the All Blacks at Eden Park in 1978 and Cornelesen credits Deans with improving the timing and lines of his running game, things he had never thought of before.
“He’s a very good player. He has DNA from his old man Greg and Kiwi DNA from his mother Leslie, so you have a really good player, ”laughs Deans.
“He will adapt easily to this level. He is a remarkable athlete, he is intelligent and skilful. He’s got a real frame, ”adds Deans, a 26-year-old who weighed less than 100kg when he arrived in Japan and now weighs 110kg. “It hasn’t compromised his skills or mobility in any way, so he has everything he needs to thrive internationally, and he’s smart enough to learn quickly.”
Rikiya Matsuda, an unused replacement against Ireland in 2019, is the first Japanese outhalf to win the Top League. “He’s grown up a lot and is ready to go, and he will put a lot of pressure on Yu Tamura. But now that they have a real option, it’s powerful for them.
Another who made his bench debut against the Lions is former Highlanders 30-year-old Craig Millar. “He will handle this level with ease, as he showed last week.”
24-year-old South African Wild Knights center Dylan Riley becomes eligible in October. “He will give the midfielder another option. It will add a little starch, ”says Deans.
“Some of the old heads are going to feel the warmth of the generation of hunters who are pretty keen and excited to be part of the action.”
Deans also thinks Joseph and Tony Brown do a great job, adding, “They’ll pull the lever because they’re going to want to be successful as much as anyone.
With Ireland missing eight pick Lions and resting three more, today’s game looks like an opportunity not to be missed for Japan.
“Yes they have a chance but I think to be completely honest it will be more difficult than any Irish team they have played in recent times because there is an opportunity for those who have had it. lucky, and they know the story, so they’re not going in with their eyes closed.
“Even after playing against the Lions last week which was probably a big plus for the squad,” Deans adds, concluding with a wry chuckle: “I think Ireland have an opportunity to take a scalp which she would like thanks to their recent World Cup experience! ”