By Frankie Deges
The goal is clear for every player in this IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy. Being in Temuco, Chile, is part of a pathway that they hope will lead to their full national teams. Over the years, JWRTs and Junior World Championships have provided more than 350 full internationals. That is the nature of this tournament. It’s a finishing school for elite Rugby players.
Japan has played in both premier age grade events, having hosted the JWC in 2009 and since 2010 were three-time finalists of the trophy. There is an air of confidence that this will be their tournament and next year will see them back among the elite.
As a stepping-stone, having a good JWRT can definitely put players on to a pathway towards a career in Rugby. Two such players are captain and flanker Hayato Nishiuchi and full-back Rikiya Matsuda.
“We are here to win,” they say almost in unison. Nishiuchi, a sociology student and quiet leader whose actions speak louder than his words, started playing Rugby six years ago following an invitation by a friend and because “at the time, I was doing no sport and was overweight”. Meanwhile, Matsuda comes from a Rugby family.
Earmarked for future greatness
They are both players earmarked for future greatness and that includes the hope of making it to England for Rugby World Cup 2015. But, if they’re honest, the real goal is 2019, a very special year for Japanese Rugby.
“I would love to be involved as quick as possible but in 2019 I will be 26 and being able to play in Rugby World Cup in my country would be incredible,” says Nishiuchi. “I intend to be at my peak then and my goal is not only to play for Japan but also to be recognised internationally.”
His dream? “To put Japan into the top eight by Rugby World Cup 2019.”
“Having not yet played for Japan, it is hard to imagine how hard it can be to make it into the team, but there are many very good players in this Under 20 team that can go all the way.”
As captain, he has already led his country to a convincing 40-20 win against Uruguay in the opening round of this year’s JWRT. Matsuda was one of the players to shine despite the inclement weather conditions.
He shares his captain’s dreams. “I would like to be involved in 2015 but should reach my peak in 2019 so that is the more realistic goal,” explains the PE student.
“We sometimes talk among ourselves of what the future can hold and we understand how hard we must work. But it is an effort we want to do.”
Ten JWRT players have the potential
Former Test centre Keisuke Sawaki is working to ensure the next crop of Japanese players are ready. As Under 20 coach, he acknowledges that at least 10 players have Test potential.
“In Rugby circles we can feel the World Cup is coming to our country and my goal is to be part of the coaching set-up for 2015 and then take it through to 2019,” he says. Although he played for Japan from 1998-2003, injuries prevented him from playing in two Rugby World Cups. Having worked with national coach Eddie Jones for four years at club level, he is in a good position to assess the future of Japanese rugby.
“The experiences these players have gained in the past year and their evolution comes because we are trying to get individual players to be better by working hard on skills, fitness and mental strength. We also want them to grow as people.”
Part of that growth, and the confidence they will take from the JWRT will be aided by taking the JWRT title. “We are here to win. Mentally, we are better prepared and in the past we didn’t have a set style as we now have. Speed will always be part of our game plan but we now want to move the ball a lot better and be more intelligent with the boot. We are quickly finding our feet as a team in this tournament.”
Goals are multiple. The first one is to win in Chile as a team. After that, the lure of Rugby World Cup 2019 is unquestionable.
By Frankie Deges