The newly unveiled HSBC Asian Five Nations has, according to Japan coach John Kirwan, gifted the country and the region with a perfect opportunity to develop rugby in two directions.
On the one hand his desire to see Japan succeed against higher-ranked rugby nations is unstinting, however the opportunity to expose younger players to international rugby at a lower level is equally important to the former All Black from a development perspective.
“The Pacific Nations Cup is a tournament that we can really get our teeth stuck into, but to keep developing when you are 18th in the world you have got to one eye on development so the Asian Cup is perfect for us,” Kirwan told Total Rugby.
“It is very important that we win it, but it is very important that we also have a good mix. It is really a chance also to blood some younger players. We are really excited because this year is an important year for us from a transition point of view, we want to be able to back up our performance in the World Cup, but to do that we have to keep one eye on the next World Cup so the Asian competition is great for us. We can play a mixture of old and new.”
Setting targets for success
Japan will play four matches over consecutive weekends against Korea, Arabian Gulf, Kazakhstan and Hong Kong in the new flagship Asian Five Nations competition, which will also double in 2010 as the region’s qualifier for the World Cup the following year in New Zealand.
“It’s an ideal situation for us as coaches because we get to mould the team before the Pacific Nations, which is really a target for us,” admitted Kirwan.
While developing the sport in Japan is central to everything that Kirwan wants to achieve, he also wants his team to start winning against the Pacific nations who are currently ranked higher. That in turn, he argues, will also breed enthusiasm.
“In our situation we are 18th in the world and we want try to get to 12th, so the Pacific Nations is made up of Fiji, Tonga, Samoa all around the 10, 11, 12 mark. I think Fiji is nine after the World Cup,” added Kirwan, whose side will face all three in the IRB Pacific Nations Cup this summer.
“That is really important to us and then we have the New Zealand Maori and Australia A, who are just coming off the Super 14 so it is a real great gauge for us.”
Rugby's gateway to Asia
Kirwan possesses a sound belief in Japanese rugby. He cites a 15 to 20 per cent increase in crowd numbers since the World Cup and refers avidly to the 120,000 registered players in the country. He also finds it remarkable and hugely promising that 20 of the biggest companies in the world economy have their own professional teams in what is a sound domestic league.
“The game here is very old, traditional, the structures are all in place so we see ourselves as the rugby union that can really help open a lot of those doors in Asia.
“There is a train station here that has three million people going through it a day, pretty much the whole population of New Zealand and Tokyo itself has 35 million people, 120 million people total in Japan. We have an incredible chance to grow and the financial situation is very positive so I think a World Cup coming here is only the right and sensible thing to do.
“Japan is very keen to host the World Cup and I think we all understand that to grow this game Asia is a fundamental part in the growth of the game and really Japan is the gateway to Asia from a rugby point of view.”
Listen to the interview with John Kirwan on Total Rugby Radio from 18:00 UK time on Thursday 28 February.