TOKYO (Reuters) - Hosts Japan will rely on organised chaos at the Rugby World Cup as they bid to overcome formidable odds and progress to the knockout stage for the first time.
The “Brave Blossoms” have been at every World Cup since the first one in 1987 but there was precious little to savour in their first seven tournament appearances, a victory over Zimbabwe in 1991 their only win in more than two decades.
Their next win would not arrive until 2015 but it was worth the wait, a 34-32 victory over twice champions South Africa shaking the rugby world to its core.
They followed that up with wins over Samoa and the United States but became the first team in tournament history unable to progress to the top eight despite three pool stage wins.
Japan would dearly love to go a step further on home soil and while they have shed their minnows tag Jamie Joseph’s side have their work cut out in Pool A.
A 41-7 defeat to South Africa in a warm-up on Sept. 6 was not the ideal perpetration for a group campaign that will see them face Ireland, Scotland, Samoa and Russia.
Former All Black Joseph has moulded a team that thrives on speedy, spontaneous rugby, utilising long phases of “unstructured” movements.
At their best, they can score against any opponents when they succeed in creating organised chaos on the pitch.
However, Japan’s attack quickly becomes bogged down when starved of space, a weakness South Africa exploited in their recent warm-up match.
While Japan are expected to beat both Russia and Samoa, they will need to upset top tier opponents Ireland or Scotland if they are to have any chance of reaching the knockout stages.
Talismanic skipper Michael Leitch, who moved to Japan from New Zealand as a teenager, will be key to guiding a cosmopolitan squad that also features players born in South Korea, South Africa, Tonga and Australia.
Evergreen 38-year-old lock Luke Thompson makes his fourth World Cup appearance, infusing steel and experience to the tight five, while hooker Shota Horie adds an extra attacking dimension with his backs-like ball handling skills.
Wingers Kotaro Matsushima and Kenki Fukuoka, both survivors from the 2015 World Cup, ensure Japan can score from any spot on the pitch. The electric Fukuoka, however, faces a race against time to be fit after being injured against South Africa.
Moving out of the pool stage would safeguard rugby’s future in Japan, where public attention will increasing be drawn to next year’s Tokyo Olympics.
Editing by Peter Rutherford