When Jamie Joseph took on the challenge of coaching Japan for the 2019 Rugby World Cup, the ex-All Blacks forward knew there was much more at stake than results on the field.
For Joseph and his players, Japan being the host nation at rugby’s showpiece tournament starting next week offers a prime opportunity to take the sport to an entirely new level in an Asian market with vast potential for growth.
Japan is the first country outside of the traditional rugby strongholds to host the World Cup, which started in 1987 with a tournament held jointly by Australia and New Zealand. The tournament has also been hosted across Britain and Ireland, France and South Africa.
“We understand the responsibility that goes alongside being the host nation,” Joseph told a pre-tournament gathering. “I understand that it’s crucial for the ongoing development of the game in Japan that we play a brand of rugby that is exciting, attractive, great to watch and that will encourage young players to take up the game.”
While rugby has been played in Japan for more than a century, it struggles to compete for popularity with sports like baseball and soccer.
When Joseph took over as coach from Eddie Jones in 2016, he inherited a team that had shown some solid progress over recent years after many years of disappointing results.
He has targeted a berth in the quarterfinals in 2019, hoping to advance from a pool that includes No. 1-ranked Ireland, seventh-ranked Scotland, Samoa and Russia.
Under Jones, Japan pulled off a stunning 34-32 victory over two-time champion South Africa at the 2015 World Cup, a feat many consider to be the biggest upset in the history of the tournament.
Currently 10th in the rankings, Japan is hoping for something similar on home soil.
Japan opens the tournament against Russia on Sept. 20 in Tokyo but the bigger test will come a week later against Ireland. A win over Ireland or Scotland could give Japan a chance of advancing.
“The challenge is to create a winning opportunity,” Joseph said of the showdown with Ireland. “We’re not the type of team that will overwhelm a Tier 1 team, so it’ll be a point or two points if we are going to be successful. There is going to be a lot of pressure and that’s the type of scenario we’ve been preparing for the last three years.”
As in 2015, Japan will be relying on a large contingent of foreign players, a benefit of residency rules for eligibility.
Of the 31 players selected for Japan’s World Cup squad, 15 have no Japanese ancestry but can represent their adopted country after living there for three or more years.
“I think we’d really struggle without them to be honest,” Joseph said. “Out of the 15 foreign players, only two have just (recently) become eligible to play for Japan. The other 13 have lived in Japan a lot longer than that and half of those players played in the last World Cup.”
Japan contested the World Cup in 1987, losing all three games in the group stage, and notched its first win in the tournament in 1991, a 52-8 win over Zimbabwe.
Four years later, Japan sustained its heaviest World Cup loss — a 145-17 drubbing at the hands of New Zealand in South Africa. Joseph played most of that game for New Zealand in his last tournament for the All Blacks. He later qualified to play for Japan at the ’99 World Cup.
The Japan squad went winless in the ’99, 2003, ’07 and ’11 World Cups but produced three wins in the group stage in England four years and only narrowly missed out on the quarterfinals.
So that’s a total of 4 wins from 28 games at the Rugby World Cup, despite the sport being long established in Japan.
The first recorded rugby being played in Japan was in 1866 with the founding of the Yokohama Foot Ball Club, a team made up mostly of British sailors.
Japanese students at Keio University were introduced to the sport in 1899 by Edward Bramwell Clarke, a graduate of Cambridge University.
Japan’s first recorded international test matches resulted in two wins against a Canadian team in 1932 but rugby remained largely an amateur sport played at the university level or by company teams in the country until a professional league was created in 2003.
As for growing the game, Joseph said the World Cup provides a rare showcase to generate interest.
“If you have a World Cup tournament in any sport, the kids are going to be watching,” he said. “And if we’re playing really good attractive rugby and if we are winning, that’s going to be an added bonus.”