Sept 4 (Reuters) - In Japan, things tend to move at a frustratingly slow pace when it comes to rugby.
Whether it be stadium construction for the Asian nation’s debut effort as World Cup hosts in four years time or the work on the field to bridge the gap on the world’s elite teams.
Eddie Jones has certainly been an improvement on predecessor John Kirwan as head coach, with the Australian overseeing better Pacific Nations Cup results and test wins over tier one nations Italy and a heavily weakened Wales squad.
He has also helped pave the way for playing opportunities for his squad in the southern hemisphere Super Rugby competition and steered away from the previous emphasis on naturalising foreign talent for the national team.
But the acid test of his encouraging tenure will be, as it has been for every Japanese boss over the last 20 years, to see whether he can add to their sole World Cup win in 1991 against Zimbabwe.
With opening Group B matches against the powerful packs of South Africa, Scotland and Samoa, the Oct. 11 clash against the United States in the sport’s English heartland of Gloucester looks set to be the million dollar match.
A second string Japan lost 23-18 to the U.S. in their final Pacific Nations Cup (PNC) fixture in July after poor discipline, but a stronger line-up should have too much power and pace for the Eagles if the penalty count is kept in check.
Ill-discipline during the PNC was a grave concern but Jones also had to cope with grumblings of discontent off the field with the Australian dismissing claims by Otago Highlanders scrumhalf Fumiaki Tanaka there was disharmony in the squad.
Following their expected group stage exit, Japan will look towards their staging of the 2019 tournament, where late re-drafting of Olympic Stadium plans have led to construction delays and un-welcoming headaches for organisers who need a new venue for the final.
Jones, though, will be not be around, having decided to leave Tokyo after the World Cup despite previously agreeing to become director of rugby of Japan’s new Super Rugby franchise.
The team is still without a name, coach and the a squad despite the season being only six months away, in custom with the Japanese rugby way.
When it does get into gear, the stiff competition of the South African sides that the Japanese have been pooled with stand the Brave Blossoms in better stead for the World Cup on home soil. But for now, the gap on the elite remains too sizeable. (Writing by Patrick Johnston in Singapore, editing by Pritha Sarkar)