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.
Senior internationals Chris Robshaw and Danny Care have been left out of England’s first World Cup training squad.
The Harlequins pair, with 150 caps between them, are not part of a 29-man group named by the Rugby Football Union.
But four uncapped players are in the squad – Bath wing Ruaridh McConnochie, Gloucester’s Georgia-born prop Val Rapava Ruskin, Northampton flanker Lewis Ludlam and Harlequins back-row forward Alex Dombrandt.
Bristol-bound number eight Nathan Hughes also misses out, and whether another absentee – Northampton hooker Dylan Hartley – is called into camp at any point this summer remains to be seen.
Hartley, who led England to Six Nations titles in 2016 and 2017, has not played for six months due to a knee problem and it is understood that he is still struggling with the issue.
Saracens fly-half Owen Farrell is an overwhelming favourite to captain England at the World Cup in Japan.
Apart from Rapava Ruskin and Ludlam, players from clubs involved in the Gallagher Premiership semi-finals – Saracens, Exeter, Gloucester and Northampton – will not feature at this stage due to a mandatory five-week rest period.
The pair, plus a small number involved for an England XV against the Barbarians on June 2, will be managed to ensure post-season active rest periods are fulfilled in agreement with Premiership Rugby and the Rugby Players’ Association.
Flanker Robshaw, 33, was England’s 2015 World Cup captain, but he last featured for his country a year ago, and 32-year-old scrum-half Care did not gain selection during last season’s Six Nations.
The squad will assemble at Pennyhill Park in Surrey on Sunday for five days, before a second camp from June 30-July 4 when further Gloucester and Northampton players could be added.
England boss Eddie Jones is due to name an official training squad on July 4, boosted by a potentially sizeable Saracens and Exeter contingent, before the first official World Cup camp begins three days later.
Jones said: “The first two England training camps are designed to improve individual players’ fundamentals to allow them to compete for a place in the Rugby World Cup squad.”
Ruskin, 26, was born in Tbilisi, but moved to England at the age of two. He is a former Georgia Under-19 captain who played for Worcester before joining Gloucester.
Former England Sevens star McConnochie enjoyed an outstanding debut season with Bath last term and Dombrandt, who was a colleague of Wales flanker Aaron Wainwright at college in Cardiff, and Ludlam have also maintained impressive club form.
Saracens forwards Mako Vunipola and George Kruis, meanwhile, will attend the training camp for treatment.
England’s opening World Cup warm-up game is against Wales at Twickenham on August 11.
Provided by Press Association Sport
Experienced pair Mathieu Bastareaud and Morgan Parra missed out on France’s 31-man World Cup squad, head coach Jacques Brunel announced on Tuesday.
The powerful Toulon centre, who has captained Les Bleus three times during his 54-cap career, missed out in a group announced by France head coach Jacques Brunel.
The squad, together with six named reserves, will work towards the tournament in Japan before a final squad is confirmed on September 2.
Bastareaud, 30, will move to Major League Rugby in America later this year, joining Rugby United New York.
Toulouse centre Sofiane Guitoune looks set to prosper from Bastareaud’s absence, while Brunel has included uncapped players in Guitoune’s club colleague Peato Mauvaka, and Toulon prop Emerick Setiano.
Bastareaud apart, other notable absentees include wing Teddy Thomas, scrum-half Parra and prop Uini Atonio.
“We have followed (Sofiane) Guitoune all year,” Brunel told L’Equipe. “He performed very well.
“We did not know if he would produce the (form). He did it all year long.
“The group is rejuvenated with many players who are 25 years and under, but there are still players with experience with (Yoann) Huget, (Wesley) Fofana and (Maxime) Medard.”
Les Bleus start their campaign against Argentina on September 21 before facing the USA, Tonga and then England in what promises to be a tough Pool C.
🇫🇷 Voici les 37 joueurs retenus pour la préparation de la Coupe du Monde 2019 au Japon ! Il est composé d'un premier groupe de 31 joueurs et de 6 suppléants ! #XVdeFrance #RWC2019 #NeFaisonsXV pic.twitter.com/FeJWbSUmDS— Fédération Française de Rugby (@FFRugby) June 18, 2019