By Jon Newcombe
Six weeks after being dealt a crushing blow at the hands of Wales while on tour in the UK, Japan Under 20s are now just two wins away from being crowned Junior World Rugby Trophy champions for the first time.
The Brave Blossoms have surged to the top of Pool B thanks to nail-biting back-to-back bonus-point wins over Zimbabwe and Canada, and they now face Georgia at Murray Rugby Park tomorrow in what is a straight shoot-out for a place in Sunday’s final.
Head coach Ryuji Nakatake, a newcomer to the role this year, believes the 119-7 rout in St Helen’s, Swansea on May 15 has served his side well.
“I think that tour was a good turning point for us,” Nakatake said. “Throughout the four matches in Wales and England our performance levels weren’t very good. But the experience we gained there has helped us highlight the good and bad parts of our game.”
“We have certainly developed some mental toughness as a result. Our captain, fly-half Jumpei Ogura, was injured and couldn’t play in the Wales game. But he watched from the touchline as the boys panicked and let in 19 tries.”
Cardiac Kids are serving up plenty of excitement
“He has told the boys not to forget the Wales game throughout JWRT, and in the last 10 minutes against Zimbabwe and Canada we showed much better composure under pressure and continued to play our style of rugby.”
Both those games went right down to the wire, leading to Japan, top try scorers in the tournament with 12, to be christened the ‘Cardiac Kids’.
“Things have gone well for us so far but both matches were very tough. For coaches the matches have been especially hard – not good for the heart!” Nakatake joked.
“We are the smallest team in the tournament. But the boys want to show the rugby world that size doesn’t matter. Just look at Shane Williams. He has played one match in Japan and scored a fantastic try on his debut (for Mitsubishi Dynaboars).”
“We all believe in the Japan way of running rugby and a defensive line that always goes forward and hits low in the tackle. But we play another challenger next so it will be another tough match.”
With Japan one point ahead of Georgia, a tie will be good enough for the Asian champions, provided the east Europeans do not secure a bonus point. If the teams did end up on equal points following a tie, the team with the better points difference would progress to the final.
USA are favourites to make the final from Pool A
Hosts USA are the likely opponents for either Japan or Georgia in Sunday’s final. Successive wins over pre-tournaments favourites Tonga and Chile have put the Junior All-Americans four points clear of the Pacific Islanders going into tomorrow’s clash against winless Russia.
A win, a tie or even a bonus-point loss will be enough for the US to progress to their second final. However, if they lose without a bonus point and either Tonga or Chile win with a bonus point, then the USA will miss out.
Russia have the worst record of any of the eight participating nations following heavy defeats to Chile and Tonga. But USA captain and chief playmaker Will Magie says his side is not taking anything for granted.
“We need one point to guarantee us a place in final but to be honest we’ve not spoken about that yet,” the 20-year-old said.
“We are taking it one match at a time and our entire focus is now on the Russia match. We’ve watched both their matches and they can be dangerous because they are quite unpredictable. But really we are just focused on our own performance; no stone will be left unturned.”
Captain Magie is determined not to let up
“We have started the tournament really well with two wins from two and we’re now looking to raise the bar even higher in performance terms. We were really pleased with the set piece against Chile because we knew they were big up front and would look to maul us from lineouts.”
“But our forwards negated that threat and they were good in the scrum too. In the backs we’d also identified some areas of weakness and we scored two tries off first phase which you’re always going to be happy about.”
“Our wingers and the full back, Madison Hughes, are looking really dangerous so we’re just trying to get them the ball early and let them do their thing. That said, we weren’t really happy with the level of our second-half performance against Chile because we took our foot off the gas a bit. But we’re continuing to work hard so that if we’re lucky enough to get to the final we’ll be ready for that.”
Tuesday’s action gets underway at midday with the Pool B basement battle between Canada and Zimbabwe, followed by the decisive Japan v Georgia clash.
Pool A then takes centre stage with a game involving Tonga and Chile, two sides still with a mathematical chance of qualifying for the final if USA slip up against Russia in the concluding fixture.
By Jon Newcombe