TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan scrumhalf Yutaka Nagare admitted that he and some of the other Brave Blossoms players are feeling the nerves ahead of the opening match of the Rugby World Cup against Russia on Friday.
As the team went through their final paces at Tokyo Stadium on Thursday, the excitement and tension was palpable as four years of planning for Jamie Joseph’s side reaches its final stage.
Friday’s match, to open the first tournament held outside the game’s traditional heartlands, is expected to draw a record domestic television audience for a Rugby World Cup fixture.
The pressure is on for Japan as hosts even though they are heavy favourites for the clash against lowly ranked Russia.
“So many media have come today - it’s going to be a match that’s going to get a lot of attention,” said Nagare, selected at scrumhalf over Fumiaki Tanaka, a hero of Japan’s win over South Africa four years ago.
“I’ll be nervous but this is a dream match so I hope to enjoy and play with confidence.”
With Japan keen to play a high-tempo match to take the game to Russia, who will prefer to battle it out in the forwards, Nagare’s role as tone-setter for the Brave Blossoms will be crucial.
He knows what a key role he has on Friday.
“First of all, I feel that I’m shouldering a lot of the responsibility. We’re playing in the opening match which is a match that comes with a lot of pressure,” said the diminutive 27-year-old.
“There’s the expectations of the team and also that of the Japanese people so I want to play well.
“On the actual day, I think I’ll be nervous but I hope to communicate as best I can with the other players ... so that we can bond well and so that I can control the match.”
Joseph, who earned 20 caps for New Zealand before also playing for Japan at the 1999 World Cup, knows the experience within his coaching staff will be key to keeping a lid on the players’ nerves.
He can call upon former Otago Highlanders head coach Tony Brown, currently with Japan as attack coach, as well as a swathe of experienced players in the squad.
“It’s always a challenge (to manage nerves),” Brown said.
“We played South Africa two weeks ago so it has been a long time (waiting) so the players are keen to get out there and play.
“We have got quite an experienced group around our leadership with Leitchy (captain Michael Leitch), Luke Thompson, Fumiaki Tanaka ... so those guys have got the team under control around nerves and they understand what they have to do tomorrow night.”
Reporting by Jack Tarrant in Tokyo; Editing by Stephen Coates