KYOTO (Reuters) - Hosts Japan could run straight into the New Zealand All Blacks at the 2019 Rugby World Cup if they survive their pool, where they were drawn with Ireland and Scotland on Wednesday.
Japan was chosen in Group A, which will also include a playoff-winner yet to be decided, and a team from the Europe 1 qualifying group, probably Romania.
While Japanese rugby has made big strides in the last few years, most notably with a win over South Africa at the 2015 World Cup, few expect the “Brave Blossoms” to beat both Ireland and Scotland, currently ranked fourth and fifth in the world, respectively.
A victory over either the Irish or the Scots in the group stage would likely be enough for Japan to advance to the quarter-finals as Group A runners-up, where they would face the winner of Group B.
New Zealand, currently top of the global rankings, may be expected to win Group B where they are placed with South Africa and Italy.
Steve Hansen, New Zealand’s coach, already has the host nation in his sights.
“It’s all about our preparation. We have to finish in the first two to qualify, and if we happen to qualify, we play Japan and it will be a historic moment,” he told reporters after the World Cup draw.
For his Japanese counterpart Jamie Joseph, the focus was more immediate, with his team hosting Ireland for two test matches in June.
“I think we’re fortunate in that we play Ireland in June, so that’ll give the players a good understanding about that team because Japan haven’t beaten Ireland or Scotland to date,” Joseph said.
Japan will be out for revenge against Scotland after their sole loss against the home nation team denied them a quarter-final spot at the 2015 World Cup. Japan became the only team to win three games in a single World Cup pool and not progress to the knock-out stages.
Japan hooker Shota Horie, one of the stalwarts at the 2015 World Cup, downplayed the revenge factor, however.
“The game against Scotland in 2015 is a thing of the past as far as I am concerned. And I do not know how many of my team mates from the 2015 World Cup will make it to the 2019 squad, but they probably feel the same way,” he said.
Horie also plays for the Japanese Super Rugby franchise the Sunwolves. The team, in its second year in the competition, continues to struggle but its improving performance and its positive impact on the national team, which draws a bulk of its players from the Sunwolves, has not gone unnoticed.
“With the Sunwolves playing, I’ve been watching them recently and their win over the Bulls was super,” said Ireland coach Joe Schmidt.
“Some of their standout players have really come on further and further. So I think June will be complicated for us.”
Additional reporting by Nick Mulvenney; Editing by Hugh Lawson