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After their World Cup heroics, Japan finally make a welcome return to the Test stage

After a difficult year, the Brave Blossoms are looking to make a big impression against the Lions.

Japan provided one of the great stories at the 2019 World Cup.
Japan provided one of the great stories at the 2019 World Cup.

AT 3PM TODAY, Japan will step out onto the Murrayfield sod to play their first Test match since October 2019. For a nation full of ambition and promise when it comes their status as a rugby country, it’s been a long, frustrating wait.

The sight of Jamie Joseph’s team slicing through Ireland and Scotland at the 2019 Rugby World Cup on their brilliant run to the quarter-final stages seem an age ago. So, what should we expect from the Brave Blossoms as they finally return to the international stage?

Japan’s players have at least managed to get a decent bit of rugby under their belts with their clubs, with the JRFU having successfully run the 2021 Top League season between February and May. 

The Panasonic Wild Knights beat Sungatory Sungoliath 31-26 in the competition’s final back in May, and unsurprisingly, those two teams provide the backbone to Joseph’s 36 man squad for this tour to Europe – which will also see Japan play Ireland next Saturday – with Sungatory providing nine players and the Wild Knights represented by seven.

The 23 capped players in the group share a total of 476 Test caps, while 19 of the 2019 World Cup squad survive. 

Kenki Fukuoka, who scored four tries in that tournament, is no longer involved having retired after the World Cup, with the superstar winger swapping his studs for a stethoscope as he studies medicine in Tokyo.

The long-serving Michael Leitch – now in his 14th year as a Japan international – remains captain, while Irish rugby fans will spot a familiar face in the form of former Munster winger Gerhard van der Heever. The 32-year-old, who now plays for the Kubota Spears after stints with Yamaha Júbilo and the Sunwolves, has qualified for the Brave Blossoms via the residency rule, and while he isn’t in the squad this weekend he could make his international bow at the Aviva next Saturday.

michael-leitch Captain Michael Leitch remains a key player for Japan. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Jospeh put Japan’s success in 2019 down to the “player-led culture” which drove the squad, so keeping those key, experienced individuals involved was always going to be central to his thinking this summer.

However he is also mindful of the need to build towards the future, particularly given how the disruption of the last year has robbed Japan of the opportunity to keep some momentum going on the back of that hugely positive World Cup campaign, as they look towards France 2023. Joseph has included 13 uncapped players in his squad, with only one of those included in the starting team to play the Lions – 22-year-old winger Siosaia Fifita.

Like the Lions, Japan’s preparations for these fixtures has been far from ideal. Kazuki Himeno, who enjoyed a strong season with the Highlanders, and Clermont’s lightning winger Kotaro Matsushima only joined up with the squad when they landed in Europe this week, with Himeno making the bench and Matsushima going straight into the team.

No surprise, so, that Joseph says Japan will have to “keep things simple” in their approach. 

japan-celebrate-at-the-final-whistle Japan celebrate beating Ireland at the 2019 World Cup. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

With that in mind expect Japan to strive for the qualities which made them such an exciting watch at the World Cup. Tempo and energy will be central to their approach on both sides of the ball, and while the squad can be forgiven if they look a little rusty given their lack of time together as a group, fitness should be no issue on the back of a condensed, yet intense Top League season, while their warm-up win over the Sunwolves earlier this month will also have ironed out some of the creases.

Under the guidance of Joseph and former All Black out-half Tony Brown, Japan have developed into an exciting watch, full of invention and creativity, and the pace they look to play the game at can be enough in it itself to cause issues. 

In that sense they will present the Lions with a very different test to what lies ahead against the more physical and powerful South Africans sides. The other challenge facing the Lions is a certain element of the unknown, as Japan may sneak in a few new ideas as they look to grow and develop that 2019 foundation.


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A strong Japan performance will be a real boost after a difficult year, and would be a good thing for the game, too. In the ongoing search to grow the sport globally, rugby always needs more teams that play the way Japan strive to.

They will, no doubt, be up for the challenge, as in Joseph they have a head coach who gets the Lions. Before his days playing for both the All Blacks and Japan, Joseph represented the New Zealand Maoiri across a four-year period in the early 1990s, which included playing the Lions “just about every week for six weeks” in 1993.

This will, though, be a very difficult challenge for Japan against a highly-motivated Lions squad.  

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

Bernard Jackman, Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey discuss Ireland’s Sevens success, the retirement of Connacht’s Seán O’Brien, the introduction of the 50/22 law at Test level, Noel McNamara’s move to the Sharks, this weekend’s English and French league finals, and the Lions’ opener against the returning Japanese.

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Ciarán Kennedy

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