By Rich Freeman
Japan's preparations off the field for the visit of world champions New Zealand on 2 November are well on track, but the team's build-up took a huge hit last week with the hospitalisation of head coach Eddie Jones.
The 53-year-old Australian had just returned with members of his staff from a visit to Miyazaki Prefecture (about a 90-minute flight from Tokyo) to scout out a training camp venue when he went down with a severe headache.
He was rushed to hospital where doctors said he had suffered a mild stroke, and with his recovery a priority, Scott Wisemantel has been asked to take on the role of acting head coach for the five matches they have planned in November.
“It would have been good if I could lead the team by myself but I’m sure Wisey will lead the team in the right direction,” Jones said in a statement released by the Japan Rugby Football Union. “I believe Wisey, the other staff and the players led by (captain Toshiaki) Hirose will astonish the world through the Japan Way.”
Keith Davies, who has coached in Japan for much of the past 30 years in addition to helping the Reds win the Super Rugby title in 2011, believes the decision was the only logical one.
“I am sure Scott will be able to step in as a caretaker,” he said. “He has had a lot to do with the team policy and skill development. That’s why Eddie brought him into the set-up. He also has a lot of experience with world-class sides such as the Wallabies and Samoa.”
Raising the profile of the game
Quite how the team will respond though is unknown, for what is the biggest – and arguably the most important – game to be staged in Japan featuring the host nation.
While there have been many games in Japan with bigger crowds – the game is being played at the 27,000 capacity Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground rather than the National Stadium, which is hosting a football game that day – the match-up between the number one side in the world and the team 15th in the IRB World Rankings has caught the public’s attention.
The Japanese love brand names and in rugby there is no bigger brand than the All Blacks, who will be playing Japan for the first time in an official Test outside of a Rugby World Cup.
“Off the field, we’d like to use this match to raise the profile of rugby in Japan,” said Shoichi Midoro, head of communications at the JRFU. “The All Blacks are not only the reigning world champions and number-one-ranked team but also a world-famous brand name alongside the likes of Manchester United and the New York Yankees.”
The match was a sell-out in an hour
Tickets for the match were sold out in an hour and the JRFU is hopeful this is the game that will well and truly launch the build-up to Rugby World Cup 2019.
"With Rugby World Cup 2019 just six years away, this is a fantastic opportunity for Japanese fans to experience and witness the very best of international rugby in Tokyo,” said Koji Tokumasu, General Manager of Japan Rugby 2019.
“We would like to thank the All Blacks for stopping over in Japan on their way to Europe for this special occasion. We hope the JRFU will continue making efforts to bring top-class rugby to Japan for the next six years so that we can continue the excitement and momentum towards hosting Rugby World Cup in 2019.”
A good, competitive performance from the hosts would also show that Japan’s hopes of making it to the quarter-finals, at least, in 2019 are not as far-fetched as some have insisted.
“We are all well-prepared for the ABs and what we need is to believe in ourselves and do what we have done so far,” said Hirose. “It will be a great opportunity to show how wonderful rugby is to fans in Japan. I believe this can increase the popularity of rugby in Japan and that can only help the success of the Rugby World Cup.”
Self-belief at an all-time high
And while history isn’t on Japan’s side – the host’s record against the men from the Land of the Long White Cloud doesn't make good reading – the win over Wales in June showed a confidence that was often lacking in teams from the Land of the Rising Sun.
“The self-belief in the team really went up with the win against Wales,” admitted Luke Thompson, who made his debut for Japan back in 2007.
Like four of his Japan teammates, Thompson was born in New Zealand. But, as a Japanese passport-holder, he has no doubts where his loyalties lie on the field and he is hopeful his adopted country can pull off a major surprise.
“We are preparing to win,” he said. “You don't go out to come second. Besides, stranger things have happened.”
This feature forms part of our Around The Regions series exploring the game beyond its traditional heartlands. Do you have an interesting story to tell about rugby around the world? Let us know by emailing email@example.com.
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