This September, rugby fans from around the world will be arriving in Japan for the 2019 Rugby World Cup. This will be the first time an Asian nation has ever hosted the event, and expectations are high both for Japan’s management of the global tournament, and for the performance of the Japanese players. Japan national rugby team head coach Jamie Joseph spoke recently to reporters about the challenges the team faces and how they are preparing.

Shaping a New Team

Coach Joseph, a native of New Zealand who was himself a member of the Japan national team in 1999, was brought on board following Japan’s appearance in the 2015 World Cup in England. During that tournament, Japan managed to shock the world by scoring a victory over South Africa, one of rugby’s undisputed powerhouses. While Japan failed to advance beyond the pool stage, their performance put them directly in the spotlight and raised expectations. Describing the situation when he arrived in 2016, Coach Joseph said “things were a wee bit crazy here, because of that success. Players felt that it was the pinnacle of their careers, so they retired. And the players that stayed behind had an unrealistic view on how good they really were compared to what was coming ahead. So, there were a lot of changes that needed to be made.”

A Three-stage Training Plan

“One thing that hasn’t changed since 2015 is that the Japanese players haven’t gotten much bigger.” While they may have a distinct size disadvantage compared to the teams they will be facing, Coach Joseph has been working to prepare them with a three-stage plan to raise their level of play. “After January we had a slow pre-season build-up, where we promoted better team leadership and forced the players to be more proactive. We also had a series of games against Super Rugby B-teams and we beat every team that we came up against, so we started to get confidence from our training and transfer it into matches.”

The second stage took the team to Miyazaki, on the southern island of Kyushu, to build their speed and endurance. “The facilities there are outstanding but it’s also very hot,” explained Coach Joseph. “Our training sessions would go from seven in the morning and would finish at nine o’clock at night.” Using GPS tracking, data was collected on how far and fast the players moved during a match, and then compared to data from other top teams. “One of the strengths that I thought our Japanese players had is their resilience, so we used that to our advantage. We tried to train them at an intensity level that was much higher than a tier-one match.”

The third stage took them north to Hokkaido for high-altitude training. After this intense conditioning, they returned to playing in test matches to hone their playmaking against high-level teams. “Physically and mentally, we’ve become quite a resilient rugby team. And that’s a real positive for us leading into the World Cup,” Coach Joseph said.

Japan’s World Cup Strategy

Considering that Japan has never progressed beyond the pool stage in previous World Cups, it would be overly optimistic to set their sights on a tournament championship. Coach Joseph, however, has kept his players focused on a goal that is ambitious but within reach. “Our goal as a team is very high, we want to make the top eight. We’ve never done it before, and I think it’s only been done twice in the history of the World Cup by a tier-two team. It’s not an easy feat, it’s a huge goal, but the players understand the responsibility that goes alongside being the host nation. It’s also crucial for the ongoing development of the game in Japan that we play a brand of rugby that is exciting to watch and will encourage young players.”

When the World Cup starts later in September, Japan will be going up against Scotland and Ireland. Asked about his strategy for these pool stage matches, Coach Joseph said, “We’re giving away a lot of weight and a lot of physicality, but our skill sets allow us to play a different game. And we need to play a different game if we’re going to challenge the best teams in the world. The type of rugby that we’re going to play is very different from the type of rugby that’s coming at us. Our game is built around structure and being very organized in an unstructured situation. One of the strengths of the Japanese players is how they learn, studying technical game plans, knowing exactly what they have to do. We’re also faster than the majority of our opposition.

“Teams like Scotland and Ireland will use their kicking game to put us under pressure, kicking the ball high and then using their size to overpower us, so we have to be able to create our own opportunities to win the game. Players under pressure make mistakes, and that’s what we’ve got to avoid,” Coach Joseph cautioned. “Off the field, we have to create a level of confidence where the player believe they can actually do it, and then we can take the game to the opposition. It’s going to be difficult, but in some ways, I think it’s going to be relatively predictable: we know what they’ll try and do, so we can prepare for that. We know what’s coming.”

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