Japan in mood to add new chapter of sporting romance
A significant shock is brewing at the tournament and the Brave Blossoms have a rich history of major upsets
Robert Kitson Nice
The most memorable Rugby World Cups are created by performances that no one saw coming. Uruguay’s splendid effort against France was another classic example, reminding everyone that nothing is ever wholly guaranteed. Few anticipate a Japan victory over England tomorrow but a significant shock is brewing at this tournament at some stage. While the Brave Blossoms have slipped backwards since reaching the quarter-finals four years ago, they have a decent track record of snaring the unwary. In 2015 they upset South Africa and four years ago they saw off Ireland and Scotland in the pool stages. They may not be the host nation on this occasion but there are worse places for some sporting romance than a sultry night on the French Riviera. It was on the Côte d’azur that F Scott Fitzgerald finished The Great Gatsby and started Tender Is The Night. It was put to the great Michael Leitch that the sunny coastal vibe was not dissimilar to Brighton eight years ago. Leitch did not disagree, revealing the Uruguay game had finally made him appreciate the magnitude of what Japan achieved on that day of days under the tutelage of Eddie Jones and a certain Steve Borthwick. Even now, incidentally, Jones still hails Borthwick’s role in Japan’s stunning success over the Boks as pivotal. “He created a lineout that could compete at a world level even though the tallest guy we had was 6ft 3in tall.” Something else Jones said at the end of last year also lingers. “The thing that still sticks out the most is that you can’t be limited by traditional thoughts. Your ability to look beyond what everyone thinks you’re capable of doing is always there.” Where there is sufficient determination and commitment, in other words, there is hope. Japan are expecting a full frontal assault – “England have been playing the same way for the past 100 years,” suggested Japan’s scrum coach Shin Hasegawa in midweek – but have duly bolstered their own pack with some experienced muscle in the form of Shota Horie, Pieter Labuschagne and the captain, Kazuki Himeno. Amato Fakatava, scorer of two tries against Chile, is a handful in the second row and so is Warner Dearns on the bench, prompting their head coach, Jamie Joseph, to suggest England might not have things all their own way. “We like our forward pack. I think it’s the best forward pack we can name but we also understand that’s where England will come. “It’s where they come against every team and it’s going to be a big challenge for us. They played very well against Argentina. That was England at their best but prior to that we’ve also seen they’ve got a few weaknesses. If we can find them and are able to play our game that can create opportunities for us.” The former All Black back-rower also relished the Uruguay game – “their performance is inspiring for tier-two teams, I really enjoyed that match” – but believes England are generally harder to knock over than certain other nations because of their tactical approach. “They play differently to everyone else at the World Cup. They control the game through their kicking game and their set piece, and for all tiertwo teams that’s a real challenge. I think we can expect a lot of high balls. We’ve got to accept that pressure’s coming and deal with it as best we can.” On the flip side, Japan have been working intensively this week on their aerial catching and scrum solidity and, as Hasegawa put it in midweek, intend to take the game to England and “smash them before being smashed”. The assistant coach, Tony Brown, also believes the tempo of the game will have to be quick. “England had the lowest error rate of the first round at 22% but they didn’t do anything with the ball. We cannot go that way, we need to play fast to win and we can’t make errors.” And, lest we forget, Japan also have the remarkable Leitch, the ultimate rugby warrior whose contribution over the years has been colossal. While he still greatly admires Borthwick – “Steve is very intelligent, he’s a great coach” – the 34-year-old does not sound a man resigned to defeat before his 15th World Cup appearance, a new national record. “We just have to be ready,” he said coolly. “For the scrums we think we have a nice strategy.” Samoa could yet be the team who inconvenience England most in Pool D but anyone who saw Japan take the game to an admittedly below-strength All Black side in Tokyo just under a year ago knows how dangerous they can still be. The Brave Blossoms may not be the force of old but, equally, it would be foolish to underestimate them. “We’re looking forward to creating new history for the Japanese jersey,” insisted Leitch. England can only hope the next chapter is not written this weekend.