TOKYO (Reuters) - For New Zealand, their comfortable win over Japan on Saturday will become a mere statistic in their fabled history, even if some will deride the All Blacks for not choosing stiffer competition to warm up for their European tour.
For Japan, though, the 54-6 loss was far more significant, evidence that the wheels of progress, backed by a professional environment and infusion of international expertise, were turning in a country that will host the 2019 World Cup.
Their previous two test encounters with the All Blacks, both at World Cups, had been lopsided defeats of 83-7 in 2011 and 145-17 in 1995 - the latter one of the lowest points in the history of Japanese rugby.
A similar defeat on Saturday for the ‘Brave Blossoms’, currently ranked 15th in the world, would have been highly detrimental to their build up towards the 2015 World Cup, not to mention the even more important tournament four years later.
As it was, though, Saturday’s tenacious and combative performance against the toughest of teams greatly excited a 21,000 crowd at Tokyo’s Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium and proved a point or two.
“New Zealand is undoubtedly the best team in the world,” said general manager Kensuke Iwabuchi.
“But we wanted to show ourselves and our fans that they are no longer a presence above the clouds, but a team to beat.”
Apart from anything else, it showed Japan’s win in June against Wales, albeit an inexperienced Welsh side without its British and Irish Lions, was no fluke.
Many credit the progress in Japanese rugby to the establishment a decade ago of Top League, a semi-professional competition which has drawn coaching staff and top players from around the world.
All Blacks Sonny Bill Williams and Jerome Kaino as well as Springbok Jaque Fourie are among those who have been drawn to Japan by generous salaries.
The Top League has undoubtedly raised the level of rugby and there have been early signs of a trade going the other way with scrumhalf Fumiaki Tanaka and hooker Shota Horie signing for Super Rugby teams.
The hope is that a two-way interaction between imports and exports to Super Rugby and New Zealand’s National Provincial Championship (ITM Cup) will provide Japan with the constant exposure to top level rugby that is key to further development.
“Currently we have a few players playing Super Rugby, and we would like more. It’s the same with the ITM Cup. We would like more players playing ITM Cup,” said Scott Wisemantel, the technical director who stood in on Saturday as coach for Eddie Jones, who suffered a stroke in October.
“The level of Top League has improved, it’s just that week in week out competitive rugby our players need.”
The appointment of former Wallabies coach Jones last year represented a continuation of a policy that began in 2007 when the Japanese Rugby Football Union (JRFU) appointed its first national coach from overseas in former All Black John Kirwan.
Kirwan and Jones have not only provided the JFRU with some needed clout in the international rugby community but have helped infuse the national team with a high level of technical expertise.
That was especially evident in the Japanese scrum on Saturday, which surprisingly pushed back the New Zealand pack on a few occasions and were clinical at the lineout where they also contested the opposition’s throw.
Australian Wisemantel credited the improved performance to the tutelage of scrum coach Marc Dal Maso, a former France hooker and one of a number of foreign advisors drafted in by Jones.
One of the biggest problems facing Japan has always been that of stature, with the country producing plenty of pacy backs but few players with the sort of physique necessary to compete up front and increasingly in the midfield in test rugby.
Imports have helped - the back row on Saturday was made up of players who qualified for Japan by residency - but there has also been progress on developing homegrown hulks and the tight five that played against the world champions were all Japanese born and bred.
If official statistics are to be trusted the combined weight of the Japanese starting front row on Saturday was 335 kilos, 10 kilos heavier than that of the New Zealand trio.
A competitive scrum is hugely important for Japan as the backs have so often spent large portions of tests against top nations starved of the ball as their forwards struggle.
Japan will have another chance to test its scrum on Saturday when they face Scotland at Murrayfield, just the sort of fixture they will have to start winning if they are to fulfil their ambition of getting into the top eight in the world by 2019.
“The short turnaround time before Japan faces another top team is a simulation before the World Cup in 2015,” Iwabuchi added.
“We lost to New Zealand but if this was the World Cup, we have to win our next match.”
Editing by Nick Mulvenney