South Korea’s mistake was defeating Hong Kong 21-19 in its opening match of the HSBC Asian 5 Nations rugby tournament. That caught Japan’s attention.
Long the number one team in Asia, Japan decided against resting a few of its main players for the short trip west and took a strong team to beat the Koreans 52-8 and virtually guarantee another title, though all knew it was probably coming anyway.
“I had hoped to take a few more fringe players,” Japan coach Eddie Jones, the man who took Australia to the 2003 World Cup title, said prior to the game. “But we changed that idea when we heard the result from Hong Kong.”
It was a typically impressive performance from the Japanese, although the score line did flatter the visitors a little with three tries coming late in the game with Korea tiring and a man down.
Japan is the one Asian team that has a hope of challenging the traditional powers from Europe and the southern hemisphere in the near future. While it has struggled to get points at World Cups in the past, the country’s game is improving.
That wasn’t too much in evidence at the 2011 World Cup, when Japan failed to win a game. Beating host and eventual champion New Zealand was never going to happen, and the same could be said of France. But losing 31-18 to Tonga was disappointing, as was tying with Canada.
The target of two wins fell by the wayside.
“We are a tier-two rugby nation,” Japan Rugby Football Union (JRFU) Chairman Tatsuzo Yabe told Reuters in February. “We didn’t have any games with tier-one sides during the years before the World Cup.”
“We made so many mistakes at last year’s World Cup,” Yabe said. “Too many unforced errors, especially at crucial moments.
“Mental weakness forced the mistakes we made close to the goal line. We had lots of missed tackles close to our goal line and gave up so many tries.
“To eradicate those errors and nerves, we need to be playing more tight games against higher-ranked teams.”
A better standard of competition in Asia would be a big help, but at the moment it is just not happening.
There’s a good chance that Korea will finish second in the tournament. Korea is less of a rugby country than Japan, where the average person barely knows that it exists, and it isn’t a strong rival.
Japan is just too far ahead of the others and has won all four previous tournaments while barely breaking a sweat.
Japan will host the 2019 World Cup, the one after next, and by that time, the team will be hoping to progress past the first round. But they need some stiffer tests in their own backyard before that happens.