TOKYO, Japan, Aug 29 – Japan coach Jamie Joseph promised the hosts would “give 150 percent” to hit their target of reaching the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals after naming his 31-man squad on Thursday.
The Brave Blossoms will be at full strength when they face Russia in the tournament’s curtain-raiser in Tokyo on September 20 after talismanic captain Michael Leitch returned from injury at the recent Pacific Nations Cup.
“The team has set a goal of making the top eight for the first time in the history of Japanese rugby,” Joseph told reporters.
“The staff and players will give 150 percent — we’re under no illusions how difficult that is but it’s definitely our goal. The moment of truth will be upon us shortly.”
“Our game is based around speed, skill and structure,” added the former All Black, whose team limbers up for the World Cup with a “must-perform” Test against two-time champions South Africa next week.
“But the key difference this year is we are fit enough now to play that game. We’re training at a level of intensity that’s 25 percent higher than our matches — I think that’s our key weapon.”
Japan famously won three games at the 2015 World Cup under Eddie Jones, including an astonishing 34-32 victory over the Springboks.
Currently ranked ninth in the world after capturing their third Pacific Nations title, the Japanese also take on Ireland, Scotland and Samoa in Pool A as they target a place in the knockout stage for the first time.
They will be boosted by their success at the Pacific Nations, where they beat Fiji (34-21), Tonga (41-7) and the United States (34-20).
– Pain barrier –
Leitch’s return from a lengthy injury lay-off also gives Japan a timely lift as they look to go one further than at the last World Cup.
“We were incredibly relieved he got through the Pacific Nations,” said Joseph.
“He’s got a separation of the pelvis which hasn’t gone away — he’s just battling through it. Most days he’s in a level of pain he’s not used to but he’s a tough guy.”
Joseph has consistently been compared to his predecessor Jones since taking over from the Australian.
But the 49-year-old warned that Japan, once the whipping boys of the Rugby World Cup, could no longer fly under the radar after their shock over South Africa four years ago.
“I’m not sure we can sneak up on a team anymore,” smiled Joseph, who selected 15 foreign-born players among his World Cup squad.
“There’s a reputation now that the Japanese play a good brand of rugby.”
“I’m a different bloke than Eddie,” said Joseph. “Eddie was a great coach for Japan and is for England but he’s been very generous sharing his knowledge with me — he still has a soft spot for Japan.”
Joseph insisted Japan would fear no team at the World Cup.
“I believe we have improved,” he said. “When I arrived in Japan the question was thrown at me how I could take the team to the next level after the success Eddie had.
“Four years later we have played every tier-one team and had four seasons of Super Rugby,” he added, noting how his side’s “winning mentality” and home advantage would make Japan a dangerous proposition.
“That’s helped toughen up the players. I can confidently say we are one team as we go into the World Cup.”
Keita Inagaki, Yusuke Kizu, Koo Ji-won, Isileli Nakajima, Asaeli Ai Valu, Takuya Kitade, Atsushi Sakata, Shota Horie, Luke Thompson, Wimpie van der Walt, Uwe Helu, James Moore, Hendrik Tui, Yoshitaka Tokunaga, Michael Leitch (captain), Pieter Labuschagne, Kazuki Himeno, Amanaki Mafi
Kaito Shigeno, Fumiaki Tanaka, Yutaka Nagare, Yu Tamura, Rikiya Matsuda, Kenki Fukuoka, Ataata Moeakiola, Lomano Lemeki, William Tupou, Ryoto Nakamura, Timothy Lafaele, Kotaro Matsushima, Ryohei Yamanaka