Japan look to next challenge after Asian title

Having coasted to the inaugural Asian Five Nations rugby title, Japan realise they must still step up a gear if they are to make an impact in next month’s Pacific Nations Cup.

The Brave Blossoms have finished up bottom of the pile in the previous two Pacific Nations tournaments, but are targeting the event as a springboard for the next rugby World Cup in 2011.

In a warm-up match, Japan will take on the Classic All Blacks on May 31 at Tokyo’s National Stadium.

“We’ll be tested a lot more against the Classics and we can come up against more tackles at the Pacific Nations,” Japan coach and All Blacks legend John Kirwan said.

“We’ve worked hard for the last five weeks. We still have plenty to work on,” added Kirwan, who is in his second year as Japan coach.

“The boys got a week off and they can relax with their families. And we’ll be ready to get into the big stuff.”

Japan beat Hong Kong 75-29 here Sunday to win the first Asian Five Nations title, asserting their number one status in Asia. They also beat South Korea, Kazakhstan and the Arabian Gulf in earlier games.

The month-long Pacific Nations event opens on June 7 featuring Australia A, Fiji, Japan, Samoa, Tonga and the New Zealand Maoris.

The Junior All Blacks won the first two titles, but players of Maori origin are representing New Zealand this year to gain international experience.

“I think defensively we’ll focus on closing around the ball and making our first-up tackles,” Kirwan said of his tactics against the Classic All Blacks side of former internationals.

“On the attack, we’ll be keeping our structure when we are under a little bit more defensive pressure.”

“We need to improve on every aspect to fight stronger opponents,” admitted Japan captain and No. 8 Takuro Miuchi, after the Hong Kong match in which they ran in 11 tries, 10 of them converted.

Kirwan, 43, who helped New Zealand win the 1987 World Cup as a winger, has called 2007 a “transition year” ahead of the 2001 edition and picked a mixture of both young and experienced players for his squad.

Japan have generally always qualified for the World Cup but never made it beyond the early rounds.

For the Asian Five Nations, Kirwan called up nine newcomers for his initial 30-man squad, including scrum-half Fumiaki Tanaka, 23, the 2007 rookie of the year in Japan’s Top League.

The backs are led by four New Zealanders, including standoff James Arlidge and fullback Shaun Webb.

“I think all the young guys have improved,” Kirwan said.

“Everyone is working hard. We’ve got some really good competition there and that’s a headache for the coach but a positive one.”

Hong Kong’s head coach John Walters said Japan had “grown immensely” after last year’s World Cup in France. Then, Japan lost to Australia, Fiji and Wales before a 12-12 draw with Canada ended their World Cup losing streak at 13.

“They are quite a lot more organised and quite a lot more physical,” Walters said.

Asked what was needed to catch up with Japan, Walters said: “We need to get more people going professional. We have no professionals.”

Hong Kong captain and No. 8 Semi Iafeta concurred. “I’d like to see a few more Hong Kong players be involved with Japanese rugby,” he said.

“That way, when they come back to Hong Kong they can spread that experience.”

Sapa-AFP – Rugbyweek.com

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