When Japan take to the field against Kazakhstan on Saturday in the first ever HSBC Asian 5 Nations Top 5 encounter to be played on neutral soil, they will do with the word’s of coach John Kirwan still ringing in their ears.
The former All Black was not a happy man with the performance his charges put in against Hong Kong despite the 45-22 victory and will be looking for an improvement as they continue their countdown towards Rugby World Cup 2011 in New Zealand.
“If we went by the standards we set ourselves for playing the likes of Fiji and Samoa then we actually ‘lost’ last week’s game 45-22,” Kirwan said ahead of the A5N triple header in Bangkok which also sees India face Iran in the Division II relegation match and hosts Thailand play Chinese Taipei for a place in Division I next year.
“I don’t want to take anything away from Hong Kong as they hustled and bustled us, but we didn’t perform as well as we should. It’s been an edgy week and the players have got a bit to prove.”
Kirwan has made wholesale changes to the starting XV, something he had always intended to do regardless of the performance in Hong Kong, and has named tighthead prop Kensuke Hatakeyama as captain, a player whose family home was destroyed in March’s earthquake and tsunami.
Courage and unity
“I will try to inspire my teammates to work hard,” Hatakeyama said. “I would very much like to convey our team message to the people in my hometown and the Tohoku region and show our unity and courage through a hard game.”
Japan ran out convincing 101-7 winners in Tokyo last year against a Kazakhstan outfit who ultimately finished second in the Top 5, but Kirwan insists the slate is wiped clean and his side must focus on their own performances.
“It’s all about performance,” he said. “The players must give 100 percent every time they wear the national jersey. I am sure Kazakhstan will have a few things up their sleeves and we must adapt to whatever they throw at us.”
Kazakhstan come into the game desperate for a change in fortunes, having lost to both Hong Kong and the United Arab Emirates so far and facing the real danger of losing their position among the elite Asian nations for 2012.
Defeat against Japan will leave Kazakhstan with no option but victory over Sri Lanka in their final match, a side that already have points on the board after drawing their first ever Top 5 match with the UAE in round one.
The UAE’s historic victory over Kazakhstan puts pressure on Sri Lanka to maintain their own place in the Top 5 and they will be hoping to cause an upset of their own by beating a Hong Kong side buoyed by their performance against Japan.
“A victory is crucial against Hong Kong , we are confident and we will give it our best shot,” insisted captain Sean Wijesinghe, who will be hoping his forwards can repeat the same gutsy performance they showed in the 13-13 draw against UAE.
Sri Lanka coach Ellis Meachen added: “It is quite a formidable challenge but I’m confident we can secure our place in the Top 5 next year. The boys know they are playing for 20 million of their countrymen. I have told them they are playing for all the villages and cities in Sri Lanka.”
Hong Kong, despite having one of the smallest reservoir of players in the world, often punches above its weight and are intent on finishing second this year, although coach Dai Rees is taking nothing for granted despite the win over Kazakhstan and loss to Japan.
“They will throw everything at us for this is an important game for them. They are a skilful side and we won’t take them lightly,” insisted Rees. “The Sri Lankan forwards are a useful unit and we have decided to strengthen our front row to counter that threat. The rest of the starting lineup remains unchanged from that which began against Japan.”
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