Rugby World Cup Profile: Japan

Date published: September 1 2015

With the 2015 Rugby World Cup now just days away, we take a closer look at each of the competing nations. Next up…


Nickname: Brave Blossoms

World Cup track record:  
Japan have participated in every Rugby World Cup to date since the tournament began in 1987. However they have only won one match so far in World Cups, back in 1991 in a 52-8 triumph over Zimbabwe. They have however secured two draws, both against Canada, in 2007 and 2011.

1987: Pool stages
1991: Pool stages
1995: Pool stages
1999: Pool stages
2003: Pool stages
2007: Pool stages
2011: Pool stages

2011 World Cup: 
Coached by former All Blacks winger John Kirwan, Japan faced a tough group against World Cup hosts New Zealand along with France, Tonga and old rivals Canada. A 47-21 loss to France was a frustrating start, despite James Arlidge scoring all Japan’s points, before Japan suffered a heavy 83-7 loss to the All Blacks. Japan lost out in a promising contest with Tonga, going down 31-18, before coming so close to a second ever World Cup win against Canada only to be denied by a late penalty, meaning they drew with the Canadians for the second straight World Cup with a score of 23-23.

World Cup Stats: P24, W1, D2, L21

– Most RWC appearances: Hirotoki Onozawa (12)
– Most appearances: Hitoshi Ono (88)
– Top RWC points scorer: Toru Kurihara (40)
– Top points scorer: Ayuji Goromaru (585)
– Top RWC try scorers: Eiji Kutsuki (4)
– Top try scorer: Daisuke Ohata (69)

Form: Japan started the year with their usual domination of the Asian scene and beat Canada in July before suffering consecutive losses to the USA, Fiji and Tonga in the Pacific Nations Cup. In the build up to the World Cup, crushing wins over Uruguay (30-8 and 40-0) gave the Brave Blossoms a welcome boost in morale.

Coach: A head coach with huge international experience, Eddie Jones has tasted both World Cup glory and agony. Jones coached the Wallabies to the 2003 final on home soil in Australia but lost out in extra-time to England. Four years later he was part of the South Africa coaching staff when they defeated England in Paris. Jones began his coaching career in Japan as an assistant with Suntory Goliath before returning to his homeland to take over the Brumbies, who lifted the Super Rugby title in 2001. He was appointed Australia coach in that same year, winning the Tri-Nations, before parting ways with the Wallabies in 2005.

A tough season with the Reds in 2007 ended quickly but he tasted success as a technical advisor with the Springboks. Jones coached Saracens in England for a brief period before returning to Suntory in Japan, taking up the Japan head coaching role in 2012 and recording the country’s first ever wins over European sides when defeating Romania and Georgia.

Japan have shown a gradual improvement under Jones during his time in charge, with the coach trying to get his side to play with more width and a focus on developing young talent. Jones will also take charge of the Japanese Super Rugby franchise from 2016.

Captain: Japan captain Michael Leitch was born in Christchurch in New Zealand, before moving to Japan when he was a teenager and became fluent in the language and culture. A young Leitch made his Japan debut in 2008 having previously captained the youth side at the Junior World Championship. Leitch impressed at the 2011 Rugby World Cup with a number of eye-catching performances, signing for Toshiba Brave Lupus in Japan after the tournament.

Leitch returned to New Zealand in 2013 to try and make the Chiefs’ Super Rugby squad only for injuries to deny him from making an appearance, but he was more successful in 2015. Leitch impressed throughout the Super Rugby season for the side with his work at the lineout and strong carrying, scoring three tries in 13 games. One of a number of Japanese players involved in Super Rugby, Leitch will be a crucial figure for the Brave Blossoms in England later this year.

Key players: Picking on the experience of those players with time in Super Rugby under their belts, the likes of Leitch are going to be huge figures for Japan. He will be well supported by Fumiaki Tanaka, the scrum-half who tasted success with the Highlanders in Super Rugby in 2015. A sharp distributor, Tanaka will give Japan real control at the ruck and can open up space for his runners. Michael Broadhurst, brother of New Zealand lock James, is a versatile member of the Japan pack along with Hendrik Tui which means that Japan should have enough ball carriers to threaten opposition defences. The boot of full-back Ayuji Goromaru will also play a major role given his match-winning performances for Japan in recent years, with Goromaru’s goal-kicking being even more important in tight World Cup matches. Yoshikazu Fujita is a bright young prospect on the wing to keep an eye on.

Profile: Four years ago John Kirwan was criticised for filling the Japan side with foreign-born players, producing limited success. Jones has noticeably changed shift in that respect to make sure young Japanese talent is getting its chance to shine. Rugby is a booming sport in Japan that is only going to get bigger when the Rugby World Cup travels there in 2019, in what is set to be a landmark tournament for the sport. Japan won’t shy away from trying to play with plenty of ambition and adventure and under forwards coach Marc Dal Maso they have transformed their scrum into a major weapon.

The lineout remains an issue however, with few options in the second row that compare favourably with the world’s best. Eddie Jones has set out during his time in charge to retain that style of play but to combine it with a way to win tight matches against Tier 1 nations. Having played rugby since 1874, Japan unbeknown to many are one of the oldest rugby playing nations. The national league, the Top League, continues to grow into an attractive competition as more top players from Super Rugby are lured to Japan. The best is yet to come for Japanese rugby you sense and exposure playing against more of the world’s top sides will help, based on how competitive Japan have proved to be in the Pacific Nations Cup.

Prospects in 2015: Japan will be eyeing those two matches against Samoa and USA as huge chances to break their streak without a victory at a World Cup, but they have the potential and players to improve on their showing in 2011.


19 Sep – 16:45 v Japan, Brighton
23 Sep – 14:30 v Scotland, Gloucester
3 Oct – 16:45 v Samoa, Milton Keynes
11 Oct – 20:00 v USA, Gloucester