With the November internationals now done and dusted for most teams, we look at each of the competing nations. Next up, Japan.
The Brave Blossoms schedule for the November Tests included Tests against more fancied opponents in Argentina and Wales as well as matches against Georgia and Fiji which were supposed to be easier fixtures.
Former Highlanders head coach Jamie Joseph started his tenure as Japan’s new boss on the back-foot when several injuries and numerous withdrawals forced him to pick more inexperienced players for the end-of-year Tests.
That inexperience showed in their opening Test against Argentina in Tokyo and they battled throughout before eventually suffering a 54-20 loss to los Pumas.
One highlight from that match was the performance of Lomano Lemeki who impressed on attack and scored a deserved try in that clash.
Lemeki continued to impress with ball in hand when Japan beat Georgia 28-22 in their next match in Tblisi but that match would have bittersweet memories for the Auckland-born flyer as he was ruled out for the rest of their campaign due to injury.
The Brave Blossoms’ next match was against Wales in Cardiff and although they were overwhelming underdogs Joseph would have been encouraged by his side’s effort in going down 33-30 to their hosts.
That encounter was valuable for the younger players in the squad, who were on a steep learning curve during the campaign, while experienced heads like Akihito Yamada, Shota Horie, Yu Tamura and Amanaki Mafi led the way with impressive performances.
Unfortunately, things went pear-shaped in the final Test against Fiji, which they lost 38-25 in Vannes, and although they only managed to beat Georgia, there were several positives which Joseph will be able to use when several of his more experienced players return to the squad.
Yamada and Mafi feel like two core players to build around for the future, and it will be interesting to see how the destructive number eight gets on playing for the Rebels in Super Rugby next year.
Tamura meanwhile has added some stability at fly-half and proven to be a competent goalkicker in the absence of Ayumu Goromaru.
That final result against Fiji means the Brave Blossoms go in to 2017 in eleventh position on the World Rugby Rankings and although they did not finish off 2016 on the same high as last year – with an impressive Rugby World Cup campaign – Joseph will now have a clearer idea who his best players are when he starts his preparations for 2017.
Replicate the attacking performance produced against Wales and Japan will continue to make swift progress. The signs are there.