Saturday, November 2, 2013

Japan v All Blacks Sends Telling Reminder to World Cup Authorities

The Highest Points Scorer of all Time - Dan Carter 
The beginning of the 2013 autumn internationals did not take place in Cardiff or London but rather in Tokyo. The first ever test match between Japan and New Zealand outside of Rugby World Cups saw New Zealand not concede a try in claiming a 54-6 victory. 

In the days leading up to the match the occasion was talked about in the rugby media from a variety of countries as being the official kick-off of the countdown to Japan 2019. Japan would be able to host the World Cup champions, number one team in the world and the host nation of the previous tournament and do so less than six years before the start of Rugby World Cup 2019. 

Hosting an All Blacks test is no easy achievement - certainly not for Tier Two nations. Fiji attempted to secure a fixture in 2013 only to be told there was no available time in the calendar. The result was Fiji hosted a team called the Classic All Blacks in a non-international to commemorate 100 years of Fijian rugby. After finishing third in the World Argentina was unable to host New Zealand. Between Rugby World Cups 2003 and the 2012 Rugby Championship the only time Argentina hosted the All Blacks was in 2006 and Argentina very nearly defeated a star-studded team.

The autumn internationals, or the end of year tours have always seen tests against the same teams with New Zealand, Argentina, South Africa and Australia facing teams from the Six Nations. The All Blacks and Wallabies added tests in Hong Kong and Tokyo from 2008-2010 as a means of gaining extra revenue and also both faced Wales in Cardiff every year. 2013 is the first time since Rugby World Cup 2003 that the All Blacks have not played an autumn international at the Millennium Stadium. The Wallabies, similarly, have played every year since and including 2005 and will play again in 2013. The reason New Zealand took so long to play in Japan is there was no real reason to play there. Just like the UAR was unable to offer an appearance fee to New Zealand between 2003 and 2011 there were no offers on the table from Japan. Now though, the JRFU is in need of selling the sport and World Cup to the population. 

The appearance fee is enticing and enables Wales to host these teams much more often than France or Italy. The All Blacks´ non appearance this year comes down to New Zealand having an offer from Japan that ultimately made it easier to begin an end of year tour and ease the pressure. Indeed, starting in Tokyo before flying to Europe simplifies the travelling and decreases the chances of losing a test match. The remaining matches against France, England and Ireland are more complicated than not only a test against Japan but also one against either Italy or Scotland. The test, in other words, was an ideal way to begin the end of year tour well and to finish the year undefeated. 

The team that faced Japan was strong with Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Ben Franks, Ben Smith and Steven Luatua all starting. There was no Kieran Read, Tony Woodcock, Aaron Smith or Conrad Smith as a number of New Zealand´s leading players were rested. The side was, in other words, a combination of the best players and up and coming players who could become regulars. It is precisely what Rugby World Cup authorities are in dire need of observing, assessing and acting upon. 

The match schedules for Rugby World Cups have disadvantaged non-traditional nations at every Rugby World Cup since the current model was instituted for Rugby World Cup 2003. Non-traditional does not refer to Tier Two or Tier Three but rather to all nations outside of the former Five Nations and Tri Nations Championships. In 2003 Argentina and Italy were heavily disadvantaged by finishing their pool matches, and being eliminated, with over one week of pool play remaining. One week after Wales defeated Italy and Ireland defeated Argentina there were the key financial matches of Wales v New Zealand and Ireland v Australia. Tonga and Canada had appalling schedules too. 

In 2007 Japan had a very tough schedule as did the USA, Canada, Georgia, Romania, Samoa and others. The difference was that action had been taken to give Argentina and Italy an easier fixture list. But in 2007, and 2011 the Tier Two and three teams were asked to play twice in four or five days. Japan faced Australia and Fiji in 2007 on September 8 and 12. With only a three day turn-around coach Sir John Kirwan did the only logical thing possible - prioritize the easier of the two matches and sacrifice the other. Kirwan was unhappy at the time but the IRB and World Cup authorities failed to act in time for Rugby World Cup 2011 as Japan played New Zealand and Tonga on September 16 and 21. The four day turn-around again saw Kirwan not field a genuine test team made up of the top Japanese players.

Kirwan´s selections speak for themselves. None of the players that started against Australia in Lyon went on to start against Fiji in Toulouse. In 2011 Japan started well against France but Kirwan made many changes to enable Japan a strong chance of defeating Tonga. But like in 2007 Kirwan made radical changes as ten of the players that started against New Zealand did not do so against Tonga. Left winger Hirotoki Onozawa was the only back to start both tests. Captain Takashi Kikutani, back-rowers Michael Leitch and Itaru Taniguchi and second-rower Toshizumi Kitagawa were the others to start against both New Zealand and Tonga.  The result was similar as Australia won 91-3 in 2007 and New Zealand won 83-7 in Hamilton four years later.

In losing by much less in Tokyo earlier today there has been praise directed at Japan for being a better team. Had Japan been afforded more days between matches in either Rugby World Cup 2007 or 2011 then the results would not likely have been so much in favor of the Wallabies or All Blacks. Rugby authorities, though, have failed to learn the lesson as Japan, as the Asia 1 qualifier, will face South Africa on September 19 and Scotland on September 23. Rather than have Japan enter the tournament as the next notion nation and looking to match it with a two time champion Japan will instead field a weakened side to give preference to the contest against Scotland. It is a far from ideal way of promoting Rugby World Cup 2019 and the organizers ought to be reprimanded.

Like New Zealand, Japan will play next weekend in Europe. Japan will face Scotland at Murrayfield before then playing Russia in Colwyn Bay and Spain in Madrid. The signs are that Japan ought to be too strong for Russia and Spain while the match against Scotland is sure to be closer to the last time they met, back in 2004.

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