After taking over the reins of the Japanese National Rugby Union Team in January 2007, Head Coach John Kirwan declared that he wanted his players to play with so-called “Samurai Spirit” and become the “world’s fittest team.” Since setting those lofty goals, the team has played in two major tournaments; the Rugby World Cup in France in 2007 and the inaugural HSBC Asian Five Nations earlier this year.
The team’s performance in the Rugby World Cup was a major disappointment as they failed to win any matches, falling 91 to 3 to Australia in their opening game. The opening loss was followed by a heartbreaker as the team lost to eventual quarter-finalists, Fiji, by the nail-biting score of 35 to 31. Inconsistency was the word of the day as their third game was a 74 to 18 trouncing by Wales. Bouncing back in their fourth game of the tourney, the team managed a 12 – 12 tie with Canada, finishing fourth out of their group of five teams.
Whether through the influence of Kirwan, the experience of playing in the world cup or the extreme lack of talent in the tournament, the Japanese squad fared considerably better at the inaugural HSBC Asian Five Nations Tournament held this past April and May.
Made up of a solid mix of Japanese veterans and youngsters, with a couple of high-level foreigners thrown into the mix hailing primarily from Japan’s Top League, the team that took the field this year would prove to be made of tougher stuff. Japan’s opponents took epic beatings in the tournament with Japan coming out of the gates with a 39 – 17 pounding of Korea, which would prove to be their closest call of the tournament. Japan then destroyed the Arabian Gulf team 114 – 6, and continued their dominance with an 82 – 6 victory over Kazakhstan. The Japanese squad showed some mercy in their final game, beating Hong Kong by a score of 75 – 29, handily cruising to the title with a mind – boggling point differential of +252, while their nearest rival, Korea only managed a +46.
These two vastly different results bring into stark relief the problems facing coach Kirwan; the Japanese squad is a team seeking a level. They are grossly over-matched on the world stage by the traditional powerhouses of the sport, merely able to salvage some dignity against the middle of the pack and competitive against only the weakest teams. When they play their Asian rivals they are so thoroughly dominant that one has to wonder if there is any point to playing in either tournaments or friendlies as the Japanese team needs not break a sweat and wins so easily that these games only serve as “feel-goods”, not even reaching the level of “confidence-boosters.”
The challenge facing Kirwan lies in building this team to a point where they can be competitive against the middle of the pack teams in the world rankings. To this end, Kirwan has been working his team hard and has continued on his idea of making any Japanese squad he puts together play to their strengths. Kirwan focuses on speed, agility and nimbleness to force the other nations bigger and more powerful players into playing rugby “that big men don’t like.”
The Japanese Top League is the main source of talent for the Japanese National Team and watching these games will give fans an idea of what to expect as Japan moves forward towards the 2011 and 2015 World Cups and more Asian action.

Story by  James Souilliere
From J SELECT Magazine, September 2008