Are Japan the most likely Tier two nation to reach the quarter- finals in next year’s Rugby World Cup?
19th September 2015, a date most rugby fans should remember. Japan, who had only won one game previously in the world cup against Zimbabwe in 1991, were preparing to start their rugby world cup campaign. Their first task, to claim the scalps of one of the most formidable rugby teams in the world, the Springboks.
Like many others, I was expecting Japan to put up a fight for the first 25 – 30 mins, before eventually succumbing to the physicality and skill possessed by the Springboks. I came to the conclusion that trailing by 20 points to South Africa before the full time whistle, would be an acceptable result for the Japanese. 12-10 to South Africa at half-time, while hoping something special might be on the cards, I still held onto to the idea that the Springboks’ leadership and quality in depth will be enough to pull them through. At the full time whistle, the biggest upset in rugby history had just occurred. While most of the world was giving a standing ovation to the soon to be named “Brave Blossoms”, Jean de Villiers facial expression at full-time epitomized how most South Africans felt about the result.
Japan looked set to make history and reach the quarter-finals of the rugby world cup for the first time. However, despite claiming three victories within their group, a 35 point loss to a strong Scotland side and points difference prevented Japan from creating that piece of rugby history. All eyes now looked towards the rugby world cup in Japan in four years time.
Since then, Japan have been on the verge of creating more history with a near upset in Cardiff against Wales in 2016 and a notable 23-23 draw against France in Paris. It’s also worth noting Japan’s 5 point loss to Scotland during that time as they will be facing the men from the highlands within their RWC group once again. If Jamie Joseph looks to go one further than his predecessor, Eddie Jones, and the English team in the 2015 world cup, beating Scotland will be a necessity. The reason being that a win against Ireland is unlikely for Japan unless they can pull off a similar feat as they did against South Africa. So their main focus will be on Scotland and making that crucial second place within Group A.
So, that being said and the obvious factor of home advantage coming into play, its seems the host country may have the best chance of reaching the 2019 RWC quarter finals out all of the other Tier 2 rugby nations. It wouldn’t be the worse option to bet on but there may be a better one. We avert our eyes to Group D where we find another Tier 2 nation desperate to make rugby history, Georgia. Okay, before we go any further, we must acknowledge that Georgia were just heavily beaten by Japan in their June internationals by 28 points to no score. And we must acknowledge that Georgia haven’t taken down any of the big teams in world rugby. However, this is not a question if Georgia is better than Japan, which they are not, but rather who can beat the team challenging them for second place in their RWC group. Therefore, it becomes a question of who you would favour, Japan to beat Scotland or Georgia to beat Wales.
Back in the Autumn internationals of 2017, Wales scraped by Georgia in a controversial victory in Cardiff by, what Adam Jones called it, Gatland “pulling a fast one”. Georgia were close to breaching the Welsh try line through putting pressure on the Welsh scrum. However, after Welsh prop, Tomas Francis had been penalised and sin-binned, and prop Leon Francis had all of a sudden sustained an injury, to Georgia’s dismay, scrums would have to be uncontested. It can be argued that this saved Wales from a humiliating draw in front of their home crowd. Again, turning to 2019, Georgia have another chance to ask Wales some tough questions. Granted, it was an “experimental” Wales side last November. However, within their group stage of the world cup, Wales face their “kryptonite”, the Wallabies. Since 2009, Australia have won all 13 meetings between the two nations. One meeting involving Wales failing to score 5 meters out against 13 Australian men in the 2015 world cup. Despite Australia being in decline, I would still put my house on them beating Wales once more as they have done in the last two world cups.
Therefore, Wales must beat Georgia to progress and vice versa. There is also the possibility of the “flying” Fijians causing another upset and beating Wales as they did in 2007. There is also the factor that Georgia may catch Australia on a wet day with a dysfunctional lineout and where who has the better scrum, has the better chance of taking the glory. Don’t be fooled, this is a possibility. Another possibility is that Fiji may repeat what they did to Georgia this year in the Pacific Nations Cup and hammer them once again. One thing is clear, the top two teams in Georgia’s group are arguably weaker than the top 2 in Japan’s Group for the world cup.
Therefore, it begs the question, are Japan the most likely second Tier team to reach the quarter- finals in the world cup next year? Possibly. It largely depends on Scotland’s form come world cup time. Nevertheless, if I was “Mystic Mac” and was to make a prediction, I would be predicting the quarter-final next year will be a Tier 1 affair. However, as Japan showed in the last world cup, never rule out the underdog.
Written by – James O’Connor
Photo – @japan_rugby