The New Zealand All Blacks perform the traditional haka before playing Australia in their Bledisloe rugby test in Melbourne on Thursday night. The All Blacks will play Japan in Tokyo on Oct 29. Photo: AP/Asanka Brendon Ratnayake
rugby union

All Blacks set to give Japan a tough test in Tokyo

By Fred Varcoe

It’s been four years since Japan played the All Blacks in a rugby union test match and there’s been a lot of rugby played by both teams since New Zealand won that match 69-31. Japan played spectacularly in the brilliant 2019 World Cup on home turf, but the legendary All Blacks have seemed less invincible since that Tokyo win in 2018.

So, when the two teams meet at Tokyo’s National Stadium on Oct. 29 in their seventh test match, both will have something to prove. The All Blacks will be looking to reassert their dominance in world rugby, while Japan will have yet another test to show that they can live with the big boys of the sport. After facing the All Blacks, Japan will travel to Europe to take on France and England, while the All Blacks will travel to face the teams of Great Britain: England, Scotland and Wales.

Japan’s Kiwi coach Jamie Joseph said he was excited by his team’s autumn schedule: “We’re very much looking forward to hosting the All Blacks in Tokyo and playing in front of our home fans. We are excited to be now facing New Zealand at home, and then England and France on our European tour, three teams that will be in line to lift the Webb Ellis Cup next year in Paris. This is the level of competition that we need to be testing ourselves against, to strengthen our squad ahead of next year's World Cup.”

There was a time when Japan would have been terrified to face the All Blacks. In the 1995 Rugby World Cup, the All Blacks racked up a record score in the tournament of 145-17 against the outmatched Japanese. While rugby had a relatively high profile in Japan — Waseda University versus Meiji University games would attract crowds of 60,000 to the National Stadium — the standard of play and rugby’s domestic infrastructure was poor.

Waseda’s team might have featured in the Top 10 most popular sports teams in the country, but beyond the university league, rugby was only represented by company teams that, with some exceptions such as Kobe Steel, usually attracted small crowds. The Japan Rugby Football Union (JRFU) tried to resolve this problem by launching the Top League in 2003, Japan’s first professional league. But the truth was it was just a rehash of the old Company Rugby Championship and most of the players were still company employees.

But slowly, Japanese rugby started to evolve, as more teams recruited better players and coaches, and some of the biggest names in rugby came to play in Japan. The appointment of foreign coaches to lead the national team (and some club teams) and the introduction of “foreign” players into the national team saw a dramatic transformation of Japanese rugby.

When Eddie Jones became coach in 2012, his aim was to make Japan a Top 10 nation that could take on the big boys of rugby and his no-compromising style started to produce results. A win against Wales in 2013 made people take notice and the team was confident heading into the 2015 World Cup. It then produced what the BBC described as “the biggest upset in world rugby,” a 34-32 win over Southern Hemisphere giants South Africa. In that World Cup, Japan also became the first team to win three pool games but still be eliminated at the group stage.

When Jones took off to coach England, Japanese rugby fans wondered if new coach Joseph, a former All Black, could sustain the development of the national team. Japan still struggled to overcome the top teams in the world, but Joseph was given the backing of the JRFU to lead the home team at the 2019 World Cup. Backed by manic crowds and a feel-good rugby boom, Japan stunned powerhouse Ireland and also overcame Scotland as they cruised into the quarterfinals, where they were defeated by eventual champions South Africa.

This year, Japan faced a rejuvenated France twice on home soil, losing 20-15 and 42-23 before going on to beat Uruguay in two more home games. Joseph said the results were “a fair reflection” of where his team stood. The return of wing Kotaro Matsushima from playing club rugby in France and forward Kazuki Himeno from injury will boost Joseph’s squad as they warm up with games against Australia A.

“Rugby in Japan has grown its profile in recent years and that’s been reflected in the results of the national team, so the All Blacks will expect a tough test in Tokyo,” New Zealand Rugby CEO Mark Robinson commented. “We are looking forward to building on our relationship with Japan Rugby.”

The All Blacks have been worshipped in Japan as the “Gods of rugby.” They have also had commercial tie-ups in Japan and at the 2019 World Cup they were everybody’s second-favorite team. Japan coach Joseph played for both New Zealand and Japan, while Japan’s former captain, Michael Leitch, is also from New Zealand.

The All Blacks finished a disappointing third in the 2019 World Cup and will be looking to take the trophy at the 2023 edition in France, but 2022 has been a rough year for the team. They lost a three-match series against Ireland 2-1 on home turf in July, a match against South Africa on August 7 and were then stunned by Argentina 25-18 in Christchurch. That may have served as a wake-up call as they pulverized the South Americans 53-3 a week later and narrowly beat archrivals Australia 39-37 on Sept. 15.

Japan will have to be at their best to match the All Blacks, but a potential full-house and Joseph’s tactical knowledge will give the hosts a chance. As Ireland, Scotland and South Africa can testify, you underestimate Japan at your own peril.

Japan vs. All Blacks, previous results

  • 1987: Osaka, Oct. 25, 74-0
  • 1987: Tokyo, Nov. 1, 106-4
  • 1995: Bloemfontein, June 4, 145-17 (RWC 1995)
  • 2011: Hamilton, Sept. 16, 83-7 (RWC 2011)
  • 2013: Tokyo, Nov. 2, 54-6
  • 2018: Tokyo, Nov. 3, 69-31
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In the photo, are they dancing to Michael Jackson's "Thriller"?

I'm looking forward to the game But I hope they won't need the referee to help them this time.

-3 ( +4 / -7 )

this a high testosterone sport, too much if you ask me. It's over-rated and the sport itself does not match with the Japanese culture.

-6 ( +5 / -11 )

Japan will have to slip the referee a bigger envelope than NZ does to win this game.

That refereeing decision v Australia was a disgrace

0 ( +6 / -6 )

this a high testosterone sport,

the sport itself does not match with the Japanese culture.

makes sense

-3 ( +3 / -6 )

The way the All Blacks have been playing, I think the headline is the wrong way around.

That refereeing decision v Australia was a disgrace

Sure was. Swain's deliberate attempt to break an All Black player's leg should have been a red card, no doubt. And Kellaway's try should have been scrubbed because of that obvious forward pass. Foley wasted no time taking that conversion, funnily enough.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

Marr Boudein...

It's over-rated and the sport itself does not match with the Japanese culture.

Have you seen the.... ahem..... "Japanese team". Not a lot of Japanese culture unless they read about it in high school in NZ, Samoa or South Africa.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Japan has a good chance against this inconsistent NZ team.

And if Japan wins, the NZ coach will still keep his job.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

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