Japan are targeting an immediate return to the top level of international age-grade competition by winning the World Rugby U20 Trophy for the second time in their history.
Relegated to the Trophy following their bottom-place finish at the World Rugby U20 Championship in 2016, Japan go into the eight-team tournament in Montevideo, Uruguay, as one of the favourites for the title.
Many of the squad preparing to take to the field over the next fortnight featured for Junior Japan at the World Rugby Pacific Challenge in Fiji back in March, where victories over Samoa A and Tonga A earned them the runners-up spot behind Fiji Warriors.
Tongan-born flanker Faulua Makisi, who scored a hat-trick in the 42-33 win over Tonga A and is a veteran of two U20 Championship campaigns, is now hoping to help his adopted country repeat their title success of 2014.
“We are happy to be here; we’ve trained and prepared very hard for this tournament,” he said. “Our goal is to win it so that we can return to the U20 Championship. The team is quick and has good skills.”
With Rugby World Cup 2019 to be played in Japan, a number of the Japan U20 players on show will be aiming for promotion to the full national team in time for the tournament.
“The Trophy is an important opportunity for all of us,” concluded Makisi, recognising the role the tournament plays in the pathway between age-grade and senior international honours.
WET WEATHER RUGBY
Divided in two pools of four, Japan will spearhead Pool A with Canada, Namibia and Chile, while Pool B consists of hosts Uruguay, Portugal, Fiji and Hong Kong.
Heavy rain in Montevideo has made for difficult training conditions but Namibia captain Prince Rivaldo Gino Gaoseb is hoping that the African U19 champions can put that to one side and improve on their fourth-place finish at the 2016 edition in Zimbabwe.
“We are not accustomed to rain so it is quite interesting for us, this chilly climate,” he said with a smile on his face. “We want to better our position last year but for that to happen we will need to play a physical game and adapt to the conditions.”
Fiji find themselves competing in the U20 Trophy for the third year in a row, having finished fifth and then third in 2015 and 2016 respectively.
“Our goal is to win the final and gain promotion to the Championship for next year,” said coach Salimoni Ravouvou.
Captain Temo Mayanavanua echoed that sentiment. “In order to achieve that goal, we must take it one game at a time. We want to give our U19s the chance to play in the tier-one competition next year. We are fighting for the country we love the most and a win would mean a lot to the team.”
The first two rounds of the tournament and finals day will be played at the 14,000-capacity Estadio Charrúa, home of the senior national team, with the penultimate round taking place in the resort town of Punta del Este, some 120 kilometres from the Uruguayan capital.
Uruguay won the inaugural U20 Trophy when it was held in Chile in 2008 but only one host nation has claimed the title since then, USA in 2012.
Captain Agustín Della Corte, who made his senior debut in June at the World Rugby Nations Cup, admits there is a lot of expectation on Los Teritos.
“We’ve had a few warm-up games that came in very handy. The goal is undoubtedly to win the Trophy but we will take each game as it comes, playing a similar style to that of our senior team,” he said.
“Playing at home is great as we will have friends and family supporting us and we’ll be playing at our home ground, where we train as a team. The pressure is on us.”
The 10th edition of the U20 Trophy begins on Tuesday with the match between Namibia and Canada, followed by Uruguay versus Portugal and Japan against Chile. The fourth and final game of the opening round sees Fiji take on Hong Kong.
World Rugby U20 Trophy
Uruguay time is (-3 GMT)