JAPAN will arrive at Murrayfield this afternoon in some awe at the world famous stadium and thrilled by their week in the Scottish capital, but for all the respectful noises they admit that leaving empty-handed would be a major blow to World Cup plans.
Having beaten Wales at home in June, coming back from a 22-18 first Test defeat to dominate the second and win 23-8, there is a burgeoning confidence in the camp. They are not naive. They know that the Wales squad was missing 15 players to the British and Irish Lions tour, but that only adds to the motivation. There is a sense now that as much as that result reverberated around world rugby, it was followed with an acceptance that it was not Wales at full strength. This afternoon Scotland are at full strength and so represent the prized scalp in a four-game tour of Europe.
Team manager Kensuke ‘Kenny’ Iwabuchi won 21 caps for Japan as a talented fly-half, his career ending just before the 2003 World Cup in which the Japanese earned a new level of global respect. The 37-year-old also had a spell at Saracens and so knows the game in this part of the world.
After today, a young Japan side will face Gloucester on Tuesday night at Kingsholm. It is no coincidence that that is where they will face Scotland in the 2015 World Cup, providing they win the Asian Nations Cup – a competition they have won comprehensively for the past six years. They then play Russia in Colwyn Bay before travelling to Madrid to take on Spain.
The aim? “To win four out of four,” said Iwabuchi straight. “As is the case in any and every team, we have our own long-term plan for eight to ten and more years but also to review our target in a four-year RWC cycle. For RWC 2019, we will work on our plan based on the performance in RWC 2015.
“So we need to achieve a good result in RWC 2015 and to allow us to do that, we must prove that our direction is right towards 2015 in this tour. We’re at the halfway mark since the current structure started two years ago and if our direction is not right at this stage, that means it will be too late not only for RWC 2015 but RWC 2019 as well. Therefore, this tour is significantly important for us.”
Japan have beaten Scotland before, a 28-24 five-tries-to-one win in Tokyo in 1989 against a Scotland ‘XV’ which included Sean Lineen, Matt Duncan, Iwan Tukalo, Damian Cronin, Derek Turnbull, Iain Paxton and a young Peter Wright. Now Wales have been added to the list of scalps.
“Having full stadia on the two Tests against Wales had brought Japanese rugby people a great deal of hope for 2019,” said Iwabuchi, “ and and the second Test win brought a new confidence.
“You cannot compare it to matches in the past, but that result has definitely inspired a new confidence as we begin to get to grips with the reality of hosting the RWC2019. We know that by hosting the third largest sports event there will be more opportunities to new people, who currently are not interested in or watch rugby, to get to know the game. So we feel sure that the RWC 2019 will be a trigger to change the position of rugby in Japan a lot.”
Japan finished the 2003 World Cup ranked 20th in the world and by mid-2011 achieved a high of 12th. They have faced the same battle as all nations outside the top eight, to uncover Test matches against leading national sides, and so view 2013 as a major step forward with Wales first agreeing to tour Japan and Scotland then welcoming the team in a full Test at Murrayfield.
Iwabuchi pays tribute to the work of Jones inside Japanese borders but says too that the spreading of wings across the Test stage is the crucial next step to the ‘Brave Blossoms’ hopes of challenging the world’s top ten in the next World Cup.
“His contribution to Japan rugby has been significant, but it is not just his direct contribution to our national team. He has been made a huge contribution to the development of Japan rugby by travelling all over the country.
“Eddie falling ill will have an effect on the squad, but we all believe that this is a good opportunity for the squad to take a leap forward in world rugby.”
There is clearly no lack of ambition and Jones ability to recruit another forwards coach in the shape of Borthwick, with whom he worked closely at Saracens after bringing the big second row to London from Bath, will also help to alleviate concerns at the former Wallaby maestro’s enforced absence.
Borthwick admits he enjoyed being involved when Wales toured in June and has been impressed by the squad during this week in Edinburgh. He is reluctant to wax lyrical about his new side, but the former England captain believes that they will surprise some Murrayfield spectators.
Borthwick, released by Saracens for the tour on Jones’ invitation, said: “It’s an ongoing development with this team and a huge challenge this weekend.
“To play Scotland at Murrayfield is an incredible challenge. I know that myself. I’ve lost there. It’s a tough place to go and play and it’s a Scottish team that’s showing a lot of development.
“They did very well winning back to back Six Nations games, and then they did very well against South Africa in the summer. When you look at the quality of that team, it shows just what a challenge it is playing against them.
“I was in Japan in June and it [win against Wales] showed that the team is developing. They played some very good rugby there. This now is a really exciting challenge for the team and we’re really looking forward to it.”
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