Japan learning to live with great expectations and the pressure of being marked men

The Brave Blossoms take on Ireland at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.

Up in the air: Ireland's 2019 dreams.
Up in the air: Ireland's 2019 dreams.
Image: Jayne Russell/INPHO

IT IS A measure of where Japanese rugby currently stands that after half an hour spent talking about the team he had just selected to play just their fourth Test in two years, Jamie Joseph ended up delivering a eulogy to a member of the opposition.

Then again, it is Johnny Sexton’s 100th cap on Saturday.

Strangely none of the previous 99 have been against Japan, again a measure of their status, their cruel exclusion from meaningful international competition in between World Cups doing absolutely nothing to grow the world game.

While Joseph, the former All Black who masterminded Japan’s win over Ireland in the 2019 World Cup, was predictably polite about Sexton, referencing his qualities as a player and a person, it was a sentence he delivered a moment later which lingered longer in the mind.

“In Japan we need to stay disciplined against Tier One teams; if we do then we can play our way, our game.”

They certainly can. Japan now is rugby’s answer to Cameroon post Italia 90, easy on the eye, tricky to play against.

The power game simply isn’t in their DNA and won’t ever be. Theirs is a unique style, the opposite to the turgid stuff delivered by the Lions and Springboks during the summer.

jamie-joseph Jamie Joseph in the Aviva Stadium. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“We have to deal with stuff when we don’t have the ball. We expect the bigger teams are going to target our pack, so that is always our challenge. For us, when we get those things right, what we have shown in the past, at the 2015 and 2019 World Cups, is that we can win Test matches.”

Yet since 2019, they have played just three Tests. They scared Ireland and the Lions in June, Australia last week, but still lost each game. Penalties kept going against them. “We spoke a lot about that during the week,” said Joseph. “We need to make smart decisions.”

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With this in mind, he decided to select 11 players who have World Cup experience, mentioning on three different occasions how he is expecting an aerial bombardment from Ireland this Saturday.

“The anticipation is that there will be a lot of contestable kicks from the Irish, it’s a trend around their game and we’re expecting to deal with that pressure on our back three.

“They have a very experienced pack, a very good pack, and they will target our set-piece. So we are expecting that battle up front, knowing that we’ve done okay in matches whenever we have had some success there – because we also know, if we get enough ball, we have exciting backs who can create and take chances and the trend on Saturday will not be any different.”

Discipline, Joseph stressed, will be key: “If we’re going to concede a high number of penalties, we will be in trouble,” he said. “We’ve spoken about being more accurate on details of skills and decisions that we make…so it is a challenge but we’re looking forward to meeting it.”

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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