Japan to make emotional Five Nations return

Defending champions Japan will make an emotional return to the Asian Five Nations on Saturday hoping to lift the spirits of their embattled country at the expense of a rebuilt Hong Kong side.

Japan coach John Kirwan, who is using the event to fine-tune his tactics and squad selection before the World Cup, said the game is a chance for his players to buoy their nation after last month’s quake-and-tsunami catastrophe.

“There’s not a day that goes by that the boys aren’t thinking about home and what they can do to help,” the former All Black told reporters on Friday ahead of the game in Hong Kong.

“But Japanese people are resilient and courageous, and the players understand they must take those qualities on to the pitch.”

Japan’s preparation for the tournament was disrupted after the disaster destroyed the family homes of two players, prompting Kirwan to consider cancelling a pre-event training camp.

Captain Takashi Kikutani said the decision to carry on with their training schedule was made after speaking to the affected players Kensuke Hatakeyama and Shinya Makabe.

“What we can do to is to show hope to the people that are suffering by playing rugby…. we want to win our games,” Kikutani said.

Japan, who rank 13th in the International Rugby Board standings, hold an unbeaten Asian Five Nations record after three editions of the tournament.

They will play all of their games away from home after the March 11 tragedy, which left thousands dead and crippled a nuclear power station.

Kirwan said he wants to try out new tactics and hand caps to untested players as he looks to cement a final squad of 30 for September’s World Cup.

“Hong Kong will be aggressive and well organised and I’m expecting a lot of pressure on us,” he said, switching between Japanese and English.

“It’s a big day for our new boys to see how they react under pressure.”

Having shipped 94 points to Japan in last year’s event, Hong Kong start the game as major underdogs, but captain Tom McColl insisted his much-strengthened side will not roll over.

“In the past Hong Kong have been a little bit in awe of Japan and tended to let our heads drop three or four tries down,” he said. “This side is a lot more headstrong.”

Hong Kong recorded a surprise 23-10 win away to Kazakhstan last weekend and coach Dai Rees is hoping home advantage may help his side spring the unlikeliest of upsets.

“This (playing Japan) is the pinnacle in their career in a Hong Kong jersey,” he said.

Rees said the availability of key players — including flanker Mark Goosen who took a break from the sport to train as a pilot — should narrow the gap between Hong Kong and Japan, after they were demolished 94-5 last year.

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