With a revamped domestic competition and confidence high, Japan skipper Michael Leitch is predicting a successful 2023 World Cup for the Brave Blossoms, writes Rich Freeman.
Japanese rugby is set for yet another revamp in January 2022 when the three-tier 24-team Japan Rugby League One kicks off.
Following on from the Top League, which ran from 2003 to 2021, the new league is supposed to set Japanese rugby on the road to full-time professionalism and, according to Shigetaka Mori, president of the Japan Rugby Football Union, set the standard for all leagues around the world.
“Just as Japanese artisans dedicate their life to refine their skills and create high quality products that astound the world, we will continue to develop the unique aspects of Japanese Rugby to create value that is recognized and loved in Japan and is internationally respected,” he said when details of the competition were released.
“As ‘One Team’ of fans, teams, sponsors, and the wider community, we will strive to make this new league known and loved around the world.”
The new league is also, with the demise of the Sunwolves, supposed to help strengthen the Brave Blossoms and ensure the national team builds on its newfound status as a Tier One nation. Though it’s fair to say the jury is still out on that one, just as it is on the new name with a number of people taking to social media to ask if Japan had taken up the 13-man game.
What is agreed on though is that there will be no shortage of poster boys as rugby tries to build on the momentum of the 2019 Rugby World Cup and challenge the likes of football and baseball as the major team sport in Japan.
A plethora of Springbok Rugby World Cup winners, All Blacks and Wallabies both past and present, an ever-growing number of Northern Hemisphere stars and plenty of top quality coaches will ensure ample of coverage overseas.
But if the JRFU has any sense then it is a homegrown talent who should be the focus of attention.
Kazuki Himeno returns from a stint with the Highlanders that saw the 27-year-old back-row forward named Super Rugby Aotearoa's Rookie of the Year after earning the most points from journalists on the competition’s website.
Himeno missed the Highlanders’ first three games due to COVID protocols but played a big role through the five remaining games of the regular season.
“At 187 centimeters and 108 kilograms, Himeno is an imposing figure at the back of the scrum and is poised to be a key figure for the Highlanders in their Super Rugby Trans-Tasman campaign,” said the website, which described Himeno as “A barn-storming ball runner, punishing defender and tireless worker around the park.”
Just as importantly he won over the fans in Dunedin, no mean feat given he was following in the footsteps of the hugely popular Fumiaki Tanaka, proof of which came in a tweet in which he said he was amazed and humbled to find his bill at his favourite Japanese restaurant had been paid for by supporters following a typical barnstorming game.
Himeno took up rugby in junior high school in Nagoya and went on to play at Teikyo University before joining Toyota Verblitz, where he will play this season alongside All Black lock Patrick Tuipulotu and a pair of World Cup winners in Pieter-Steph du Toit and Willie le Roux.
In a sport that in Japan strictly adheres to the concept of senpai (senior) and kohai (junior) Himeno’s initial entry into the Top League caused quite a stir when then-coach Jake White handed him the captaincy, unheard of for a rookie straight out of university.
“When he first came, Jake was the coach. He made him captain and in Japan that just doesn’t happen – there’s a hierarchy when it comes to age. Everyone was shocked, but he just ran with it; everyone just ran with it,” former Toyota teammate Ruan Smith told Rugby World.
“When I first saw him, I couldn’t believe the size of him, as a back-rower, and his athletic ability, his skill. He’s first across the line, a strong lineout jumper… Just everything about him was an immediate standout.”
“The strength in his game has been ball in hand, especially in the wider channels, but he’s just explosive through contact. He has good footwork for a big guy, and he’s a natural leader.”
And that leadership role will, most people predict, soon see him take over from Michael Leitch as captain of the Brave Blossoms.
“I want to develop by following in his footsteps as closely as I can,” Himeno said of the former Chiefs forward.
“When we’re running, I line up next to him. When Leitch-san takes off, I’m trying to stick with him.”
And his efforts have not gone unnoticed by Leitch.
“He has put on quite a bit of size. He seems to have made a conscious effort to tackle hard and really wants to be the strongest runner,” Leitch told Kyodo News prior to the World Cup.
With Leitch having had an unlucky run with injuries there are some who think Himeno may even get a chance later this year to lead out the Brave Blossoms.
As Leitch himself put it recently, “First of all, I have to secure a regular position on the team. If I can’t do that, I am not qualified to be captain.”
Jamie Joseph’s team have confirmed games with Ireland and Scotland, while most – including Wallabies coach Dave Rennie – think Australia will stop over in Japan for a test on their way north at the end of October.
That match and one against Portugal have yet to be confirmed, but the JRFU have commented on the games against the two Celtic nations they beat on home soil at the World Cup.
“We’re delighted to have confirmed our second match for our upcoming tour of Europe, against Ireland. We have a great deal of respect for the Irish and look forward to challenging them once again in Dublin. They are an experienced and well coached side, with talent spread throughout their squad,” said Yuichiro Fujii, Director of the Japan National Team.
“Playing them at home is a tough assignment, however the team is hugely motivated and looking forward to the opportunity to get one back after the loss earlier this month.”
Earlier, Fujii had said how excited the Brave Blossoms were to be returning to Murrayfield, having played there against the British and Irish Lions in June.
“As a team we have a lot of respect for Scotland and know they will be incredibly tough at Murrayfield, in front of their home fans and at the home of Scottish Rugby. Scotland will no doubt be out to avenge their loss at Yokohama in 2019, so our preparation leading into the game will be crucial.”
“Our performances in 2021 will be a barometer for how the Brave Blossoms are progressing in our goal to be recognised as a genuine top-level rugby nation.”
Progression that has led Leitch to make a bold statement regarding Japan’s intentions for Rugby World Cup 2023.
“At the 2019 World Cup, I felt we reached our limits by getting to the last eight,” he said. “Next time, I want to surpass that. I want to make it to the final.”
One reason for that progression was the now-defunct Sunwolves.
Cynics will no doubt say Japan’s Super Rugby side did not have much of an impact given their poor playing record.
But that misses the main impact the team had, which was taking Japanese players away from their comfortable lives and getting them to perform well outside of their comfort zone against world-class opposition on a regular basis.
Players such as Himeno go to the best high schools and universities and join the top companies as a result of their ability to play rugby. They are – some would say – mollycoddled – and very rarely want for anything.
The travel schedule the Sunwolves had to endure and the constant living out of a suitcase developed a culture and mental strength that eventually came to the fore at RWC 2019, and Leitch and Joseph have in the past made no secret that they think a domestic league alone could harm the development of the Brave Blossoms
The autumn’s tests will obviously be too soon to make any judgement, given the league does not start until the new year.
And it can only be hoped that the teams – who have been recruiting aggressively – show a little more imagination and professionalism than the people behind the new league to ensure it does what it has been set up to do.
Aside from the new name, the format of the new competition has puzzled many, and that’s before a ball has been kicked in anger.
The new league will be made up of three divisions with 12 teams in Division One divided into two separate, six-team conferences, and six teams in both Division Two and Three.
Teams in Division One will play the five other teams in their conference twice, both home and away, a format that fans have been crying out for in the hope the sides can take on a more regionalized rather than corporate image.
However, it is the inter-conference matches in which teams will play all six teams outside their conference once, that have confused many.
With no playoffs and the league champion determined by the team at the top of the standings after 16 games, some are asking whether the format is fair, given some teams would have to only play powerhouses such as Panasonic and Suntory – now renamed Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights and Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath as part of the desire to create a regional identity – once while others must play them twice.
To be fair, it is not all bad news, as there will be promotion and relegation from the three divisions, the top two teams are set to play in a new cross-border tournament and the sides have also been told they must set up academies in the hope of finding more Himenos.
As always with Japanese rugby it’s fair to say there are interesting times ahead.