Once upon a time it was France. Often times it's been the All Blacks. Very often it's been Fiji. For a while it was Argentina. But, since the last World Cup it's been Japan. The Brave Blossoms have become the game's great entertainers.
Japan are also important, for the top of the international game has lacked variety. Since France became the eighth member of what is now the council of World Rugby in 1978, only Italy and Argentina have become full members, and their on-field progress has been mixed.
World Rugby were vindicated by their decision to award the 2019 World Cup but they and the global game need Japanese rugby to capitalise upon that success if they are to dine at the top table.
Critical to that is more fixtures like last Saturday’s against the Lions and today against Ireland.
"Absolutely," says Robbie Deans, coach of the Panasonic Wild Knights in the Top League since 2014. "They've got a decent calendar this year, but they just need to continue to do that. These guys are going to grow naturally as they have done through Top League but it's a case of keep exposing them."
To that end, Japan are returning to the northern hemisphere later this year, and The Irish Times understands that they have been lined up to complete Ireland's autumnal schedule along with the games against the USA in Las Vegas, New Zealand and Argentina, meaning a return visit to the Aviva. Good stuff.
Helpfully too, their domestic game is growing stronger according to Deans, who is well placed to judge. A former All Blacks fullback who has had a stellar coaching career with Canterbury, the Crusaders (five Super Rugby titles) and the Wallabies, five weeks ago he guided the Wild Knights to their fourth Top League title under his watch 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 previously and won two as well, but you tend to remember the ones you lose,” says Deans wryly. Speaking to The Irish Times from his home north of Canterbury, he and his wife Penny have been there for a month, including two weeks in quarantine, after two unbroken years in Japan.
He’s not complaining. “We went there [Japan] for a couple of years and we’re still there.” They have three children, Sam, Annabel and Sophie, who are all based in Sydney, where they will all congregate in September for Annabel’s wedding.
This year's Top League was far and beyond the level of anything that's gone before and that will continue. There's a lot more depth now
In this year's Top League there were more than 150 overseas-born players involved, with New Zealand providing 41 per cent of them, including seven of their World Cup squad. Six of the victorious South African squad played in it too, as did former Ireland Under-21 player Paddy Butler, with Yamaha Jubilo.
Teams operate to a quota, with only five foreign players (defined as non-Asian passport holders) allowed in a matchday squad, only three of whom can be on the field at any one time.
Twelve of the 16 clubs had overseas head coaches. Among the eight New Zealanders were Deans, Todd Blackadder, Mike Cron and Cory Brown. Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen are on the payrolls at Kobe and Toyota respectively as directors of rugby, Eddie Jones holds a similar position as a consultant with Suntory, while Michael Cheika will do the same for NEC Green Rockets next year. In addition, there are 23 foreign assistant coaches at the 16 clubs, of which 15 are Kiwis.
Up until now, the competition has been semi-professional, with most Japanese players’ company employees, and so holding down jobs around their rugby commitments. Next season will see a rebranded, fully professional league.
In any case, “the standard is good” according to Deans, “and that’s not something you would have said five years ago. This year’s Top League was far and beyond the level of anything that’s gone before and that will continue. There’s a lot more depth now. There’s genuinely half a dozen teams capable of beating each other and winning the ‘comp’ which, again, wasn’t the case five years ago.
“In terms of physicality there’s a lot more work going in now. Eddie [Jones] was probably the first to introduce a real focus on gym work in order to make Suntory and then the Brave Blossoms more physically competitive internationally.”
Deans also cites the extensive number of former international coaches and the Sunwolves four-year stint in Super Rugby.
“While that in itself wasn’t that successful, it was successful insofar as they brought back learnings and habits that get transferred to their own teams.”
Hence Deans wasn’t surprised by Japan’s wins over Ireland and Scotland at the World Cup.
“I knew it was a possibility. I knew that they’d play out of their skins and if they got a sniff then they’d be hard to deny because they had enough in the group, enough X-factor, enough skill and they’d be able to play at pace if allowed to do so.
“There was an element of surprise at Brighton,” he adds, in reference to Japan’s even more stunning win over the Springboks at the 2015 World Cup “and there was a surprise to some extent again at the level they were able to play at.
“That bubble is well and truly burst now but the other point of difference now is that there’s more depth. There are more players coming on stream, and Jamie [Joseph] is going to have selection challenges prior to 2023.
“The group will evolve out of necessity and if they make those decisions in a timely fashion and expose the next generation to the experience they need, then they’re perfectly capable of taking it to another level.”
Deans says the Top League is now “pumping players out” and while he would never take any credit, the Wild Knights provided seven of Japan’s World Cup squad and have seven players in the current squad.
The Queensland-born backrower Jack Cornelsen, who qualified through residency in November last year and made his debut against the Lions off the bench, is a case in point. His father Greg famously 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'd never thought of before.
“He’s a very good player. He’s got the DNA of his old man Greg and the Kiwi DNA of his mother Leslie, so you’ve got a very good player,” laughs Deans.
“He’ll adapt to that level with ease. He’s a remarkable athlete, he’s smart and he’s skilful. He’s got a genuine frame,” adds Deans, of a 26-year-old was under 100kg when he arrive in Japan and is now 110kg. “It hasn’t compromised his skill set or mobility in any way, so he’s got everything he needs to thrive at international level, and he’s smart enough to learn quickly.”
Rikiya Matsuda, an unused sub against Ireland in 2019, is the first Japanese outhalf ever to win the Top League. "He's grown a lot and is ready to go, and he'll bring a lot of pressure on Yu Tamura. But now that they've got a genuine option is powerful for them."
Another who made his debut off the bench against the Lions is the 30-year-old former Highlanders loosehead Craig Millar. "He'll handle that level with ease, as he showed last week."
The 24-year-old South African-born Wild Knights centre Dylan Riley becomes eligible in October. “He’ll give another option in midfield. He’ll bring a bit of starch,” says Deans.
“Some of the old heads are going to feel the heat from the chasing generation who are pretty keen and excited to get a piece of the action.”
Deans also believes that Joseph and Tony Brown are doing a great job, adding: "They'll pull the lever, because they'll want to succeed as much as anyone."
Given Ireland are missing eight chosen Lions and have rested three others, today’s game looks like a gilt-edged opportunity for Japan.
“Yeah, they do have a chance, but I think to be perfectly honest this will be harder than any Irish team they’ve played in recent times because there’s an opportunity for those who have been given the chance, and they know the history, so they’re not going to come in with their eyes closed.
“Even off the experience of playing against the Lions last week, which was probably a big high for the group,” adds Deans, he concludes with a wry chuckle: “I think Ireland have an opportunity to take a scalp they’d quite like to take courtesy of their recent World Cup experience!”