Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Underdog no more: Japan looks to 2023 Rugby World Cup

WELLINGTON, New Zealand ( Associated Press) — Michael Leach has led Japan to significant victories in the last two Rugby World Cups. The next World Cup is in France in 2023, and Leach has a message: don’t ignore Japan.

In 2015, Japan defeated South Africa in the English seaside town of Brighton, which lives on as a “Brighton miracle”. In 2019, its group-stage victories over Ireland and Scotland made it to the quarter-finals and brought rugby in Japan to broad daylight.

Leach is no longer the captain but is still a player and a key member of the team. He is looking forward to the tournament where Japan is placed in Group D along with England, Argentina, Samoa and another qualifier.

The underdog tag doesn’t rank leeches—nor does it consider it fair.

“I think Japan is quite unique because I think we’re everybody’s second favorite team,” Leach told reporters this week, speaking from Tokyo. “Despite having two successful World Cup campaigns we are still treated as an underdog. It’s hard to brush.”

“Subconsciously your automatic thought process when you think of Japan is not a big, physical side that’s going to dominate the teams,” he said.

Leach said it is difficult to judge where Japan stands in preparation for the World Cup compared to the build-up to 2019. Then, as Japan prepared to host the world tournament at home for the first time, the campaign was driven by a sense of urgency and purpose. ,

Has not worked in the same way for the benefit of Japan over the years. COVID-19 closed international borders and Japan went 18 months without a Test match. Its ability to introduce new players was lackluster but Leach believes things are right now.

“In 2019, with everyone counting on us to have the home advantage and develop Japanese rugby, we had a lot of access to resources and time away from the clubs,” he said. “The clubs were not reluctant to release anyone.”

“This time it’s a little different with COVID,” he said. “It’s really hard to figure out where we are with our preparations but when we are together we have made incredible progress.”

Leach said Japan can count on players in the World Cup. Many already have World Cup experience, while young players have had the opportunity to play with or against some of the world’s top players in Japan’s fast-improving professional league.

“I would say we have a good core of players who have been involved in both the 2015 and 2019 World Cups, the majority in 2019,” Leach said. “I think the knowledge and experience we have is going to be important in 2023.”

“We’ve got some great up-and-coming players who’ve got the real X-factor,” he said.

Japan’s image is that it relies on speed rather than physicality, but Leach said that is changing.

“Not everyone paints the picture of Japan as having that physical edge, but we’ve proven in the past that we can box above our weight,” he said. “It’s not about being quicker or more physical than the opposition. For us it’s about being smarter, choosing our moments, and finding the right territory.”

“One of the advantages we have over the Japanese team is that we are very tactically flexible. Of course the strategy will change against each opponent. I wouldn’t worry about my fitness or the lack of fighting in any of those games. “


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