Inagaki and Leach, Japan’s national rugby team, reveal their “knowledge of how to compete in League One”. | FRIDAY DIGITAL

Inagaki and Leach, Japan’s national rugby team, reveal their “knowledge of how to compete in League One”.

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Leach (left) and Inagaki (right) talk during a national team match in July. They are as dependable on the pitch as ever (Photo: AFLO)

Japan’s national soccer team is closing in on a top-eight finish at the World Cup in Qatar. The national rugby team, on the other hand, is preparing for the World Cup in France the following year, and has lost all three of its matches against strong nations in its campaign through November. Keita Inagaki and Leach Michael discuss the challenges ahead in the stadium immediately after the match against France.

After finishing in the top eight for the first time at the 2019 World Cup in Japan, the Japanese national team is entering a new phase of its development, continuing the regime of then head coach Jamie Joseph.

The theme for this fall’s activities is “Base Camp. The goal was to establish a new style of play that would allow the national team to compete with the rest of the world, while replacing the players step by step.

In October, the team played three consecutive matches against Australia A under the name of “JAPAN XV” in Japan after October 1, and a test match against the All Blacks (New Zealand national team) on October 29, which was a close 31-38 win. On November 12 and 20, they clashed with England and France in hostile territory. Although they lost 13-52 and 17-35, respectively, they provided a valuable benchmark for the upcoming tournament in France next fall.

We’ll just have to get used to the pressure.

Keita Inagaki said at the Stadium de Toulouse immediately after the loss to France. The 32-year-old, a longtime Japan left prop, referred to his time in Ligue 1 starting in mid-December.

I’ve been thinking about what it takes to be in Ligue 1 and still be able to compete on the world stage. Once again, I think the players understood today (in the match against the French national team). When you are competing in Ligue 1, you should not be at the level of Ligue 1. We must continue to have the skills to compete in the world, the body to compete in the world, and the mindset to compete in the world during Ligue 1.

As Inagaki has conveyed, the intensity of clashes between the domestic league and the international arena is different, as is the pressure placed on the body and mind by the clashes, and the amount of physical strength that can be lost in a single contact.

A member of the press with experience in high-level competition, referring to the French national team’s match in Toulouse at the ground level, said, “The sound at the moment of contact is different between the domestic league and a test match.

Furthermore, this time around, it rained and the turf was a little more prone to turnover. The pressure from the fiercely competitive players who are accustomed to the ground may have been of a different quality than that of the international-level players playing for the Japanese team.

Of course, the differences between the domestic scene and the international stage were known to all concerned before they went there.

That is why a club called the Sunwolves was set up to allow Japan’s national team candidates to play in the international Super Rugby league until the Japan tournament.

Inagaki (far left, photo/Afro) and captain Jun Sakate (center) jump onto the pitch during the pre-game warm-up for the European tour.

Even though this system disappeared due to internal circumstances within the JSA at the time, the field side did not stop trying during the period of activity.

This time, after the heavy defeat to the England team in London, a twist was applied to the session. During the regular team’s attacking practice, the players were made to stand in front of the boundary line between attack and defense.

Players who play in that position are normally called “offside,” which is a foul. However, the Japanese team had to assume from practice that the pressure of the opponent, and by extension, the refereeing of the day, would be a case where the “offside” was not enforced.

Inagaki continued by including other skills that needed to be improved.

Accuracy and execution. That’s what Japanese rugby is all about.

Even in the domestic league, which entertains fans with its speedy development, players aiming to make the Japanese national team must hone their physical and technical skills to be able to compete in the world’s top colosseum. They want to keep in mind the “precision and execution” required at the international level.

This is why Inagaki said, “We should not be adapted to the level of League One.

I think it is natural for national team players to be physically fit in Japan. But, then, can that physicality and contact skill be used overseas? That is the question. If not, then you need to change your way of doing things. Whether that means changing your skills, improving your skills, improving your physicality, or changing the way you use your body… (I think)”

Once League One is over by late May, the team will begin final adjustments for the World Cup, which starts in September. At the time of the Japan tournament, the team was able to prepare for about nine months prior to the opening of the World Cup, including the recovery period, but this time the team will be strengthening on a tighter schedule than at the time of the tournament.

What is required in this period of total finishing touches? Leach Michael, who has been the captain of the team, answers this question.

How much passion can we create for the national team? The key word is ‘kizuna’ (bond) within the team. I think it will be important how much we can deepen that. The team and staff must become a team, otherwise the power of the Japanese national team cannot be demonstrated.

In addition to tangible strengths such as physicality and “accuracy and execution” of play, the team must also mobilize intangible strengths, such as the connections among players, when the tournament is held overseas.

While it is not impossible for the team to make it to the top eight of the World Cup for the second consecutive tournament, it is also clear that they will need to build on their success to achieve their goal.

In the main event, the team is paired with England, which recently suffered a crushing defeat, and Argentina, which took on England in November and won.

Like Japan’s national soccer team, the Brave Blossoms are in a position where their popularity depends on the results they achieve at the World Cup. The members of the Brave Blossoms will first study steadily on the League One stage.

  • Interview and text by Kazuya Mukai

    Sportswriter Born in 1982 in Toyama Prefecture. Graduated from Seijo University, Faculty of Literature and Arts, Department of Arts, and has been working as a sports writer since 2006. He has been working as a sportswriter since 2006, mainly covering rugby. He is the author of "Sunwolves no Chosen, Super Rugby: Tsuyouru Wolves no Kiroku" (Sunwolves' Challenge, Super Rugby: Record of the Fighting Wolves) published by Futabasha.

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