After shocking South Africa in a thriller four years ago, it looked like Japan may kick on to become a serious threat when the World Cup arrived to their home patch in 2019.
However, three months out from the competition, they have struggled to rediscover their glittering 2015 form, with just one win and one draw against Tier 1 nation opposition in 33 matches.
In fact, eight of their 15 wins in the last four years have come against minnow opposition like Korea (4) and Hong Kong (4). Their only victory against a top team was against Italy in June 2018, backed up by a solid 23-23 draw against France the previous year.
International sport may be a results business but, whether form has been patchy or not, it all comes down to the World Cup. This is where the host nation will be judged the most.
On the club front, the Tokyo Sunwolves’ recent culling from the Super Rugby Championship has thrown Japanese rugby into turmoil.
It was complicated decision by SANZAAR – the body that runs the Southern Hemisphere competition – to cut the Sunwolves from the championship after the 2020 season due to the Japanese Rugby Football Union’s refusal to pay the annual ¥1 billion (€8 million) fee necessary to remain in the competition.
In part, the JRFU made it clear that it felt the Top League – Japan’s premier domestic competition – was a better way to strengthen the national team going forward.
One only needs to look at the league tables from the past four seasons to understand this, with the Sunwolves winning just eight out of their 62 matches since 2016 – a disastrous 7.75 per cent success rate.
The fact that they regularly took on the best club sides in the world – win, lose or draw – ensured the players are no longer in awe of the likes of South Africa and New Zealand, a mindset also helped by the win over the Springboks four years ago.
It may be a tough task to match the upset of 2015, but head coach Jamie Joseph, who played in the 1995 World Cup for New Zealand and the 1999 tournament for Japan, remains satisfied with his team’s progress, having played against all top-ranked nations over the past four years.
Despite shipping heavy and narrow defeats, game time and experience have still acted as a positive learning curve.
The 49-year-old has instilled a strong work ethic in his players, and although your not likely to find yourself being too physically intimidated by Japan squad, they are full of smaller, agile players with buckets of skill.
The Brave Blossoms also employ superb technique in passing, kicking and trying to put the best man in a formidable attacking position. And while their scrum may be light on muscle, they are still capable of holding their own against bigger opposition.
Whether this helps against the likes of Ireland and Scotland in Pool A remains to be seen, but Joseph must try to develop a style that can beat Samoa and Scotland in their other group fixtures. Two wins from four will certainly be a solid showing on home turf.
Japan play four games before they open their World Cup campaign on September 20 against Russia in Tokyo, with three of those coming in the Pacific Nations Cup.
Joseph’s side take on Fiji in Kamaishi on July 27, Tonga a week later in Osaka, and the United States in Fiji on August 10, before their final warm-up game against South Africa on September 6.
Of the 42-man squad named in recent weeks, only 12 players have previous Rugby World Cup experience, with New Zealand-born Michael Leitch certain to captain the side if he returns from a groin injury.
Veteran lock Luke Thompson will play in his fourth World Cup at the age of 38 if he makes the final squad, while 23-year-old winger Ataata Moeakiola, who has been plying his trade with Super Rugby for the Chiefs, will be one to watch.
It may be a different Japan side from the one that lit up England four years ago, but backed by home fans and the weight of the nation, it will be exciting to see if the Cherry Blossoms can bloom this Autumn.
Nickname(s): Cherry Blossoms/Brave Blossoms
Head coach: Jamie Joseph
Captain: Michael Leitch
Most caps: Hitoshi Ono (98)
Top scorer: Ayumu Goromaru (708)
Top try scorer: Daisuke Ohata (69)
Home stadium: Chichibunomiya Stadium, Tokyo
Key player: Michael Leitch. The 30-year-old backrower was instrumental in guiding Japan to the greatest shock in world rugby history in 2015. Although he is recovering from a long-term groin injury, he’ll have the hopes of the nation resting on his shoulders. No doubt, the fearless New Zealand-born star will up to the task.
Best result: Pool stage (1987, 1991, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011 and 2015)
Fixtures: Russia (September 20), Ireland (September 28), Samoa (October 5), Scotland (October 13)
DID YOU KNOW?
Japan were the first country to concede more than 100 points in a game at Rugby World Cup when they lost 145-17 against New Zealand during the 1995 tournament in South Africa.
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