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Rugby World Cup: Preparation drives Japan’s perfect coup

Unlike four years ago, favourable schedule in the pool will now suit the Brave Blossoms

Michael Leitch and Fumiaki Tanaka of Japan celebrate following the Group A victory over Ireland. Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Japan are now a serious factor at their own 2019 World Cup. The conditions and the scheduling already in their favour, now, thanks to a brilliantly planned ambushing of Ireland, the Brave Blossoms also have a new-found popularity in their own country, momentum and self-confidence.

Well, they are the hosts, and as the history of both the Rugby World Cup and Fifa World Cup shows, the host country often perform above themselves. While England went out in the pool stages four years ago, they are the only hosts to have done so.

Japan's football side won their group before losing 1-0 to Turkey in the round of 16 as the 2002 Fifa World Cup hosts, and would have been under altogether more scrutiny. By comparison, the Brave Blossoms' Jamie Joseph and his assistant coach Tony Brown had been planning their ambush under the radar for years.

“We’ve been thinking about this game constantly for a year,” he said. “Certainly way longer than Ireland have. In fact, in our subconscious we have been thinking about it for three years. It has always been huge.”


Nor was he just referring to the week he and Brown were allowed spend at Pennyhill in the week Eddie Jones was plotting England’s raid on the Aviva Stadium last February. The former Japan coach Jones was only too happy to help, but this was only part of the planning.

As Owen Slot has pointed out in the Times, no squad in this World Cup has spent as much time together as Japan's has in the past year, which Joe Schmidt estimated to be at 180-200 days.

Furthermore, they were spared game time in the 2019 Super Rugby Championship, to instead focus on their conditioning.

Their hugely popular 30-year-old captain Michael Leitch, did not play a single game for the Sunwolves, and in 2018 he played just eight. Similarly another 30-year-old, Lappies Labuschagne, who captained the side against Ireland, also didn't play once for the Sunwolves this year, and just seven times last year. Another 30-year-old, the outhalf Yu Tamura, played three times for the Sunwolves this year and just six times in 2018.

Their dynamic 33-year-old hooker Shota Horie – who ran around the pitch in Shizuoka like a spring chicken, making 31 metres from 13 carries and 17 tackles in his 80 minute performance – made three appearances this year, and eight last year.

Joseph and Brown, who replaced the former as the Sunwolves head coach, reasoned that as the nation best disposed to playing in the Japanese climate, they should be ideally equipped to maximise this advantage.

The breakdown

There was some debate as to why the Sunwolves were so underpowered, and they finished joint bottom of the table with just three wins and 13 defeats in 16 matches, but everything was geared toward the World Cup. And no one in Japan is complaining now.

They were also planning for these pool games, and specifically Ireland. In point of fact, their stated desire of keeping the ball in play for 50 minutes or so of the match didn’t quite materialise, the ball in play time being 38 minutes and 59 seconds, which is reasonably high but not excessive.

However, Japan targeted the breakdown in a way that Ireland would not have seen from them previously, widening the gate with side-ish entries in defence, rucking beyond the ball and pinning Irish players on their own rapid fire ball.

This in turn made it more difficult for the Irish defence to employ the kind of line speed they’d shown in the two wins over Wales and victory over Scotland.

Kept under wraps for so much of the year, the super fit and superbly conditioned Japanese players drew on the sense of occasion to maintain a remarkable level of intensity from the very first minute to the last.

It would be unfair to say Ireland only had their eyes on Japan for six days. Schmidt turned down the chance to coach with the Lions in 2017 so as to oversee Ireland’s tour which did, after all, take in two matches here, including one in Shizuoka.

It was on that tour that he blooded James Ryan, Andrew Porter and others. Despite being without their Lions, 15 of that 31-man panel are in this World Cup squad, and 11 of them were in the match-day 23 last Saturday. That figure would have been 12 had Jack Conan not been injured.

Tricky game

Of course, the payback for a long-awaited, highly charged, emotional performance is backing it up next time out, and even the All Blacks fell short in the second Test of their series at home to the Lions. So it remains to be seen if Japan can scale those heights again. They celebrated like they’d won the World Cup. But then again, they may not have to in order to reach the quarter-finals, for the scheduling has clearly been designed to favour Japan at every turn in this pool.

They had an eight-day turnaround to Ireland’s six, it will be seven days as against Samoa’s five next Saturday, and another eight as against four for the pool finale against Scotland.

Samoa could be a tricky game for them, but if they win that they will have 70,000 fans roaring them on again in Yokohama.

Scotland know they cannot have any real complaints about the turnaround. Four years ago Japan only had a four-day turnaround after their epic 34-32 win over the Springboks in Brighton.

A fresh Scotland side, playing their opening match, beat them 45-10 in Gloucester, and although Japan would go on to beat Samoa (26-5) and the USA (28-18), they became the first team in tournament history to win three games and yet be knocked out before the quarter-finals.

This time, all the cards will be loaded in favour of the tier two country. Payback time. But then again, they are the hosts.