Blossoms bid to bloom on opening night

As Japan prepares to get Asia’s first Rugby World Cup underway at the Tokyo Stadium tonight (11.45am Irish time), it would be all too easy to forget their opponents as the planet turns its gaze towards the Brave Blossoms.

Blossoms bid to bloom on opening night

As Japan prepares to get Asia’s first Rugby World Cup underway at the Tokyo Stadium tonight (11.45am Irish time), it would be all too easy to forget their opponents as the planet turns its gaze towards the Brave Blossoms.

This is a global rugby showcase 10 years in the making and it is clear that the people of Japan have done their utmost to make it what World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont hopes will be a “transformational tournament”.

“Over the next six weeks, we will embrace the very best of rugby and the very best of Japan. Rugby mania is going to captivate this nation. Great people make great events and I would like to thank the Japanese government, the host cities, and the people of Japan for their support.”

Now the onus is on Japan’s national team to pick up the baton and reach the quarter-final stage for the first time at the ninth attempt and not follow England in 2015 as the first hosts not to make the knockout stages.

A victory on the opening night would go a long way towards settling the nerves and with Ireland up next in Pool A a week tomorrow and Scotland lying in wait in the final group game, anything else but a win here would be disastrous. Thankfully, Japan’s opposition is Russia, a team beaten by English Championship side Jersey Reds during the summer and trounced 85-15 by Italy.

Their last victory in six meetings with the Brave Blossoms came in Tokyo 16 years ago and not even their head coach gives them much of a hope. Welshman Lyn Jones rated his team’s prospects in Tokyo this week, when he said: “Japan are entering the game as favourites. Let me be frank, we have a 20% chance in this game.”

Jones, though, did provide a caveat, referencing their most recent meeting, in Gloucester in November 2018, when Russia jumped out into a 16-0 lead inside 22 minutes at Kingsholm but lost narrowly, 32-27.

“But that’s just on paper,” the head coach said of his own assessment. “We have made four replacements since the match we played against Japan in Gloucester and now all of the best Russian players are in the squad.”

It is a squad determined to stage an upset on Japan’s big night.

“We are not nervous,” scoffed Russian wing German Davydov. “I think it is the Japanese who should feel anxiety as hosts.

While his captain and fellow wing, former Blackrock College boy and Northampton Saint Vaz Artemyev said: “We watched the last four or five games of Japan. They have a very structured, organised game. We need to bring chaos into their organisation.”

That may be easier said than done when the Japanese have a coaching staff as astute as boss Jamie Joseph and attack coach Tony Brown, who faced the media during his team’s press conference at Tokyo Stadium yesterday.

The suspicion is that Russia will be going to kick, kick, and kick again against Japan and Brown was asked how his players will respond.

“Russia are good at kicking the ball but we need to be pressuring, using our ability to turn them into counter-attacking opportunities. We’re good in the air with the high ball and being able to move the ball quickly will be important.”

If Russia do as indicated, they may have problems regaining possession from a versatile and agile backline marshalled by Brown, whose description of his side’s attacking talents should put Ireland supporters on alert for their meeting in Shizuoka in eight days.

“I don’t think we ever attack in the same way twice,” Brown said. “It’s what we’ve always done in Japan and other teams I’ve coached, I’ve always had new attacking options for each opposition. Russia’s no different, and Ireland will be no different next week. Around the boys interchanging in different positions, we’ve got a number of guys on our team and on the bench, (Ryohei Yamanka) can play full-back, in the midfield also first-five so can Rikiya (Matsuda).”

Japan’s biggest threat could be the pressure of playing on home soil as wing Kotaro Matsushima indicated when asked to compare the difference between this World Cup and four years ago, when his side were the darlings of the tournament after beating South Africa on the opening weekend.

“I wasn’t feeling that much nervousness last time around. This time, I’ve begun to feel the responsibility having experienced various things,” Matsushima said ominously, “and I feel there’s more pressure given we’re the hosts as well.”

Brown acknowledged that being hosts carries huge expectations.

“That is always a challenge. We played South Africa two weeks ago so it’s been a long time. The players are keen to get out there and play but we have quite an experienced group, (captain Michael) Leitch and Luke Thompson so those guys have got the team under control and they understand what they have to do. It’s been an enjoyable preparation week and there have not been too many nerves at all.

“The players played here last year against the All Blacks, so there won’t be a problem with them being too nervous against Russia. It’s going to be exciting and an opportunity for us to play the way we want to play.”

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