Joseph seeks World Cup clues in Asia dust-up
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Japan coach Jamie Joseph is backing his new-look side for this year's Asian rugby championship, a lopsided local scrap unlikely to offer many clues in their build-up to the 2019 World Cup.
The former All Black made the right noises for sponsors by talking up the "potential" of a squad featuring 16 new faces before their opening game in South Korea on Saturday.
However, the home-and-away tournament also involving Hong Kong should once again provide a platform for the Brave Blossoms to run up crushing wins against hopelessly outgunned opposition on their way to a 25th title.
Joseph, who has spent much of his first six months in charge playing down the significance of Japan's swashbuckling 2015 World Cup run under Eddie Jones, desperately needs games against stronger opposition.
"The new players are getting an opportunity to represent their country for the first time, which is always special for a rugby player," Joseph told reporters Wednesday.
"We want to continue the development of Japanese rugby," he added. "The results so far speak for themselves. We had one win in the November tests and the Sunwolves have had one so it suggests we haven't quite got the right players yet."
Joseph had a rude welcome as Japan coach as they were thrashed 20-54 by Argentina before a close win over Georgia and defeats by Wales and Fiji on their tour of Europe.
But the 2019 World Cup hosts can expect an easier time against the Koreans and Hong Kong after racking up 242 points and conceding just 23 in four games last year.
Joseph named a 37-man squad with uncapped scrumhalf Yutaka Nagare - who captained Suntory to a league and cup double last season - set to feature alongside the likes of jet-heeled wing Akihito Yamada, available after snubbing an offer to play Super Rugby with Japan's Sunwolves.
"I don't think any of the top 10 teams see us as a threat," Joseph told AFP in a recent interview, describing how expectations have cooled since Japan stormed to three World Cup wins, including a seismic 34-32 triumph over two-time champions South Africa.
"But I am a far tougher judge than the results against Korea and Hong Kong," insisted the 47-year-old. "It's about how they perform within the team."
Japan host South Korea in the return fixture on April 29 before facing Hong Kong at home on May 6 and away on May 13.
They then face a significant step-up in class when they take on Romania at home on June 10 and Ireland on June 17 and 24, when World Cup captain Michael Leitch, Amanaki Lelei Mafi and Hendrik Tui could rejoin Japan during the Super Rugby break.
Ayumu Goromaru's involvement remains a question mark, however, despite the fullback enjoying a sensational 2015 World Cup.
"I haven't heard from him," Joesph said of the player who will leave Toulon at the end of the season after making only a handful of appearances since joining the French club last year.