By Jon Newcombe
Japan Under 20s arrived back in Tokyo late last week licking their wounds but with valuable lessons learned from a four-game tour of the UK.
Travelling to Wales for the second time in three years, Japan played three matches in the Principality and another in London in preparation for the Junior World Rugby Trophy in Salt Lake City, USA (June 18-30).
All three games in Wales resulted in losses but a 66-19 win over Irish Exiles at the home of Ealing RFC at least prevented a whitewash.
The aim of the tour, though, was more about honing the side’s performance - rather than worrying too much about results - ahead of a competition where Japan have proved to be the nearly men of the last two years.
In both 2010 and 2011 Japan finished runners-up, losing in the respective finals to Italy and Samoa who were both promoted to the IRB World Junior Championship as a result.
Defeat in last year’s title decider was particularly galling, with Samoa recovering from a 17-0 deficit to snatch a 31-24 victory at the Avchala Stadium in Tbilisi, Georgia.
Team Manager Yasuhiro Iijima knows they need to put right quite a few wrongs from their overseas tour when they reconvene at a training camp on June 8 if they are to have any hope of making it third time lucky in JWRT 2012.
“We showed some good skill at times in the matches but overall we were not very satisfied with the way things went for us,” said Iijima.
“Too many mistakes crept into our game – especially at the breakdown when our opponents put us under pressure. We need to get better there, and also cope a lot better with the intensity of some of the defending we’re going to face.”
The harshest lesson was handed out two games into the tour when Wales Under 20s crushed Japan 119-7 at St Helen’s, Swansea.
Four-times capped Wales wing Tom Prydie crossed for five tries in a 19-try romp for Danny Wilson’s men.
Japan refused to give up and grabbed a consolation first-half try on 40 minutes when wing Kentaro Kawahara crossed the hosts’ line.
But Iijima admits they were outclassed in all departments. “We couldn’t touch them,” he admitted. “We’re not used to that kind of strength and speed. But if we had another chance to play them it might be a better game.
“While it was disappointing to lose by such a big margin I think the game will help us in our development as a side. The players will have definitely learned some lessons from the tour.”
Some encouraging words have come from Gareth Nicholas, who coached Bridgend College against Japan in the final game of tour and also in the first, a 45-42 win for Welsh Academicals.
During that two-week period Nicholas says he saw considerable improvement in the young Japanese outfit.
“We only won the game, 32-29, with the last play of the game and there was never more than one score in it,” he said.
“The standard of play was much better than I expected and a vast improvement from the first game they played.
“Their blitz defence was good; their tackle contest was impressive; their scrummaging was reasonably good and their lineout had improved.”
Bridgend College is one of Wales’s primary breeding grounds of talent, boasting a number of current Wales Under 20s players – including the last three captains -amongst their graduates.
The game was a good test to see how far Japan Under 20s had come under new head coach Ryuji Nakatake, who, Iijima believes, could prove to be the difference between another near-miss and a first-ever JWRT title.
Nakatake, 39, is a former flanker and coached leading student side, Wasseda University, to two Championship titles in his four-year spell in charge before being appointed to the national team set up.
“The new coach has a different approach, he encourages the players to make decisions for themselves and play what they see,” explained Iijima, who predicts this new found freedom of expression will be severely challenged in Salt Lake City.
“We’ve got a tough pool because Zimbabwe are traditionally quick and agile, much like ourselves, Canada are a good all-round team with no weaknesses as far as I can see, and Georgia are always physically strong.
“But we are definitely looking to go one better and win the competition this year.”