Japan will put one of the longest unbeaten streaks in rugby on the line when they head into the 2017 Asia Rugby Championship.
The last time Japan lost a game in the tournament was November 2002 when they went down 22-20 to South Korea in Bangkok. And since the format of the tournament was changed in 2008 from a biennial event to an annual competition, the Brave Blossoms have won 35 games (all with a bonus point for scoring four tries or more) and drawn one – in 2015 in Aberdeen when the game against Hong Kong was abandoned in the first half due to heavy rain with Japan leading 3-0.
Last year under interim coach Ryuji Nakatake, the Brave Blossoms fielded their most inexperienced team yet. But they still came away with four wins, scoring 242 points and conceding just 23.
Since then Jamie Joseph has taken over the reins and the former New Zealand and Japan international has picked a 37-man squad to take on Hong Kong and South Korea in this year’s tournament.
“It’s a big squad because some of the players are currently injured or reconditioning after a big work load with the Sunwolves starting straight after the Top League,” Joseph said of the roster, which contains 16 uncapped players.
Yutaka Nagare, who captained Suntory to the league and cup double in 2016-17, leads the group, which contains non-travelling members of the Sunwolves, the Junior Japan side that came second in the World Rugby Pacific Challenge and players who impressed during the recent Top League season.
“This a great opportunity for the team to perform after being assembled for four weeks as National Development Squad members,” Joseph said.
“The new players are getting an opportunity to represent their country for the first time which is always special for a rugby player. The young players, who were part of the Pacific Nations Cup program, are also getting an opportunity to play, which gives us a chance to look at them play with more experienced players.”
The Koreans come into the game on the back of a tour of Chile last November that saw them lose the first test 30-12, before rebounding to win the second 38-36.
Coach John Walters has kept faith with many of the players that made the trip to South America but a number of top players plying their trade in Japan with corporate sides are unavailable.
Hong Kong coach Leigh Jones, meanwhile, will be hoping the benefit of having his top players in a professional environment at the Hong Kong Institute of Sport will pay dividends.
Last year, Hong Kong finished second after beating South Korea 34-27 in Incheon and 41-15 on home turf and losing 38-3 (home) and 59-17 (away) to Japan.
South Korea, who went down 85-0 (Yokohama) and 60-3 (Incheon) to the Brave Blossoms were third but avoided a playoff game after Malaysia declined the option.
Story By: Rich Freeman
Asia Rugby Championship 2017 Schedule
Saturday, 22 April
South Korea v Japan at Ansan Wa Stadium, Ansan
Referee: Stephen Copeman (Hong Kong)
Saturday, 29 April
Japan v South Korea at Chichibunomiya Stadium, Tokyo
Referee: Matthew Rodden (Hong Kong)
Saturday, 6 May
Japan v Hong Kong at Chichibunomiya Stadium, Tokyo
Referee: Timothy Baker (Hong Kong)
Saturday, 13 May
Hong Kong v Japan at Hong Kong Football Club
Referee: Shuhei Kubo (Japan)
Saturday, 27 May
South Korea v Hong Kong at Ansan Wa Stadium, Ansan
Referee: Taku Otsuki (Japan)
Saturday, 3 June
Hong Kong v South Korea at Hong Kong Football Club
Referee: Akihisa Aso (Japan)