vendredi 15 juillet 2011

Japan breakout year ?

Japan has always been a enigma for world rugby. Winning the Pacific Nations Cup for the first time, Japan revealed to the world all his progress two months before the World Cup.

Even if few know this, Japan is a traditional nation at rugby. British sailors bring rugby in Japan in 1874. Because of racial barriers and isolation, Japan played his first international game in 1932 against Canada. Rugby always had big numbers in the country. Japan is still ranked 6th in the world in terms of registered players ahead of Australia, Argentina, Wales and Scotland. Rugby in Japan always had a big financial support thank to company teams domination. But Japan always suffered from his isolation and inability to attract tall and strong players because of competition from judo, baseball and other martial arts. It's still a major issue. A late conversion to profesionnalism didn't help also. So Japan finally won only one game in World Cup history that was over Zimbabwe in 1991.

This could change radically at the next World Cup, thank to the development of professional Top League since 2003, thank to foreign contribution both at domestic and national level, Japan seems to be on the brink of revealing all his long-waited potential. Just two months before the World Cup, Japan beat two Pacific Island nations at full roster. Japan had already did this in 2010 but agaisnt weakened teams in 2010. This time, they beat the same kind of teams that usually elimanate Wales at the World Cup. But more than results the level of play of the Brave Blossoms is impressive, they made huge progress at rucks, defense and scrummaging. Ryan Nicholas bring world class skills to the backline. His breakline style remind me O'Driscoll's one. Japan back row radically improved in every ways. Usually made of captain Takashi Kikutani, young gun Michael Leitch, and number 8 Ryu Holani, they demonstrate toughness, resistance, endurance and, above all, fighting spirit.
One of the most impressive thing with this team is his depth. John Kirwan built this team for the World Cup, he wanted Japan to be able to play every four days, so he instated a huge competition among national team players, and no one has been saved. Even foreign-born players were affected, it lead the team to the current level of play. Even now, Shaun Webb is still in competition with Go Aruga at full-back, but he's also at fly-half with newcomer Murray Williams and historic leader James Arlidge. The same is right for Justin Ives and Luke Thompson compete by Toshizumi Kitagawa and Itoshi Ono at lock. Finally, two very different teams beat Tonga and Fiji in July.
One more impressive thing is the margin of improvement available. Against Tonga, James Arlidge mistakes lead to two zero pass try from Tonga ! In the same game, Japan missed two try opportunities with only one pass to do in front of the last defender ! Japan still lack simple try scoring skills, if they learned it, it could be terrible for their next opponent, Italy, because, above all, Japan love the ball, they keep it and keep it like Munster can do. They had an average possession of 70% at the PNC, 90% of the tries conceded by Japan came from a quick counterattack.
The chances for Japan to beat for the second time a Six Nations' team have never been so high. A win can definitely put them as a contender for the quarter-finals. Never forget what usually happened to France in his opening match at the World Cup...