In a little under eight years time, the Rugby World Cup circus will pitch it's tents on unchartered territory. Japan 2019 sees the first move of the game's showpiece tournament away from the traditional powerhouses of Europe and the Southern Hemisphere in an attempt to take the game to all corners of the earth and into a relatively untapped but potentially prosperous new market.
The hope is that by that time, rugby in Japan will be a financially healthy and very popular sport and that the national side will have made some serious inroads on the IRB world rankings ladder. The 2011 tournament then, was a chance for the 'Cherry Blossoms' to further enhance their international credentials and stir up interest levels in the game back home as a result but a tough pool containing the hosts, the enigmatic French and Tier Two bedfellows, Tonga and Canada, would be a tough ask.
Lock Luke Thompson had more reasons than most to look forward to the tournament. Born and raised in New Zealand, he's been plying his trade in Japan since 2004, taking up citizenship in 2007 and the chance to represent his adopted country on the biggest stage of the world game in the country of his birth was, literally, one of a lifetime. He tells the Japanese story ¦
Game 1 Japan 21 France 47
France were 14-0 up after only 12mins which was obviously not the start you wanted, were you worried that it might blow out at that point?
Luke Thompson: "No, not really, their first two tries were more against the run of play than anything else. It didn't feel like they were running away with it at all, it felt more as if we had to settle down and just hang on to the ball for a bit."
What was said under the posts after that second conversion to try and take the sting out of the French momentum or to concentrate on your own game and go for it?
LT: "Just that we knew they were going to score points at some stage and it happened to have been early and under unlucky circumstances from our point of view. We were never going to change our game plan at that stage, we were confident that if we could get some ball and put some phases together, then we could put them under some real pressure."
Was that always going to be the tactic if you were backed into a corner - to come out and attack, because it's in the nature of both the team and the coach?
LT: "We are an attacking team and our strengths revolve around the speed of our game and making the opposition move around the park. Obviously, the score has some bearing on a team's tactics but for us we were looking to put France under pressure by moving the ball. JK [John Kirwan] and the coaching staff had spent a lot of time developing a style that they felt suited us and would put other teams under pressure, so I don't think our style would have changed much, no matter the score."
It was still only 25-21 to France with 15mins remaining “ did you dare to dream the seemingly impossible at that point?
LT: "We were really confident at that stage that we could pull it off. JK often spoke of critical moments in games that have a bearing on the outcome, I think we missed a couple of those and in the end that cost us. We came into that game with the belief that France were going to take us lightly and that we had the ability to beat them, so it wasn't a shock to us to be in that situation at all."
Three late tries for the French left a rather flattering look to the scoreboard and the dream fell just short but apart from actually winning the game, you couldn't have done much better could you?
LT: "It was hugely disappointing to finish that way and I think most of the boys felt like we really missed an opportunity to make history that day. But that's not what the record books will show and that's the only thing that counts I guess - results alone matter."
Despite conceding those three late tries, the territory stats for the last 10 minutes were 84%-16% in Japan's favour. Is that an indication of tiring Japanese bodies falling off counter attack tackles or the extra quality of the French finally showing through?
LT: "No, I think that the stats show that we were trying to push on, that we were attacking and trying to win the game. The French are a world class team, you just have to watch the final to see that but I think that in trying to win the game, we tried to force a few things and it ended with long range tries against us. Again, critical moments proved crucial and a little luck our way might have seen a different result."
Game 2 Japan 7 New Zealand 83
Coach John Kirwan rang the changes for this one presumably with a view to more important games against Tonga and Canada but is there a more prestigious opposition for any player to face than the All Blacks “ particularly if you were born and raised in New Zealand?
LT: "This was one of the hardest games to sit and watch that I have ever had. All the boys really wanted to be out there, especially the Kiwi born boys for obvious reasons, but it was not our call. It is one regret that I will always carry, but lessened slightly due to the fact it was out of my hands. In saying that, I understood the plan of the coaching staff."
How disappointed were you not to play against the nation of your birth?
LT: "Hugely gutted. There had been some talk that it could happen but there was a lot to focus on before that so it wasn't thought about until after the France game. I totally understood JK's reasoning, but that was still a hard pill to swallow."
Japan missed twenty-two tackles no matter who you're playing and what side you've put out, those numbers are going to come back and bite you?
LT: "Yes, you can't hide from that stat, especially if you are playing the best team in the world so that was quite disappointing for the boys."
Ma'a Nonu was unstoppable in this game, would the Japanese players face many centres of that power and size in the Top League?
LT: "He's a very good player but a lot of the boys have played against him before and there are some pretty big and powerful players in the Top League as well. There is a strong Tongan influence in Japanese rugby, starting from high school and some of those boys are quite large and we have also had quality international players coming to Japan for a long time now."
It's an oft quoted observation that Japan struggle to an extent in rugby because of their naturally diminutive physique and it was the power and size of the All Blacks that really proved too much in this game but, is the observation a lazy stereotype or a valid comment?
LT: "We are definitely not a big team by international standards and hence, have to play a style that tries to negate this difference but I think some people would be quite surprised if they had to stand alongside some of the Japanese rugby team. Sometimes I think it's used as too much of an excuse but in saying that, for Japan to break into the top ten in the world, size is a slight issue. The All Blacks definitely dominated at the break down but I think they did that to other teams who are a lot bigger than us as well, so size is not always what counts most."
The backdrop to this game were the terrible disasters suffered by both nations in 2011. I would imagine it was quite an emotional experience for all concerned on the night?
LT: "Yes, it was and a big theme for us this year was to try to help the people of Tohoku by playing with courage. The losses experienced both in Christchurch and in Japan were significant so this was a very emotionally charged night for us and I'm sure that it was for a lot of the All Blacks as well."
Half-Time Quick Hits
Best match you saw not involving Japan?
LT: "All Blacks v Australia."
Six of the best players of the tournament (three from the Northern Hemisphere, three from the Southern Hemisphere)?
LT: "Jerome Kaino, Richie McCaw and Israel Dagg. Sam Warburton, Jamie Roberts and Thierry Dusautoir."
Best emerging individual talent?
LT: "Michael Leitch (Japan)."
Best team other than the All Blacks?
Ones to watch in 2015 “ players and/or teams?
LT: "Australia and Wales. They were both young teams this year."
Game 3 Japan 18 Tonga 31
You went pretty much toe-to-toe with the Tongans in the 1st half of this one and were down 18-13 at the break but they were edging the breakdown. Was that a talking point at half-time?
LT: "We just couldn't get our game plan working, our style of play. It was a very frustrating game in the sense that the Tongan boys played well and enforced their style and used their strengths to control the game. If I can remember correctly, JK wanted us to speed the game up, to be technically better at the breakdown and just hang onto the ball."
Tonga managed to smother your speedy attack and turn it into more of an arm wrestle, which suited them didn't it?
LT: "Yeah for sure, we have played each other a lot in the last five years and know each other pretty well. They out-played us, it was as simple as that."
You'd won the past five encounters between the two sides, was there a little bit of over confidence going into this one or did the fact that it was a World Cup match mean that all bets were off?
LT: "No, that wasn't the case at all. We knew we would have to play very well to beat Tonga and we didn't. World Cups are a completely different ball game, you have eighty minutes to perform, that's it."
Was this the most disappointing result of Japan's tournament?
LT: "It was very disappointing all right and it's hard to separate this and the Canada game. Looking back, I think I see the results as a whole. We went to the tournament looking for two wins and we didn't get any, so that is probably the most disappointing thing. Both the Tongan and Canadian games would have been vital wins for us, but things don't always go to plan I suppose."
You said after this game that you were disappointed that the team hadn't turned up. Is that the worst feeling as you look back now, that you just couldn't produce when you needed to?
LT: "Yes! A lot of coaches say that, but to show glimpses of our potential but not for long enough to get a result, is heartbreaking."
Game 4 Japan 23 Canada 23
Japan's high tempo game caused Canada problems and you looked good when you sniped constantly at their line and forced them onto the back foot but they knuckled down in the 2nd half and started to outmuscle you a bit didn't they?
LT: "They are a strong team and when they got their forwards involved they showed they had the ability to put us under pressure but I wouldn't say we were outmuscled. I think we may have panicked a bit, rugby is also a game of momentum and you can obviously do things to stop or to change that momentum but it's not easy. Canada got a roll on and we didn't do enough to stop them or to close the game out. Again, it's all about those critical moments but this was a game we never should have drawn."
The team visibly tired and were run down by Canada in the closing stages after holding a 23-15 lead with 6 mins to play. Do you think the fact that the Canucks had a game less in their legs at that point was a factor?
LT: "That would be an easy excuse to use, however, it's a fact that we had a terrible draw - having to play Tonga and Canada on a very short turn around when they both had ten days to prepare for us. But, at the end of the day, if we were good enough on the day, we should have beaten both those teams. Being up by eight points with only six minutes to play and not winning is inexcusable."
The stats show that you had 59% territory but only 42% possession. Was that the main problem, getting in the right areas but not having enough ball with which to profit?
LT: "We wanted to play down in their half so that meant we kicked a little more than usual I suppose - the plan being to get down there and create pressure and score but they were good at keeping the ball tight and hanging onto it for several phases. Also, our turnover rate was too high."
You were only two minutes away from achieving Japan's second ever World Cup victory. Do you wish you could have that time again and come up with a different play?
LT: "Of course, who wouldn't? But that's rugby I guess. We were hugely gutted, we targeted two wins and to get nothing but a draw was once again, heartbreaking."
Above all, this was a terrific match for the neutrals and a great advertisement for the improvements made by the Tier Two nations. Do you agree and is that something positive to take out of this one?
LT: "For sure, everyone loves a close exciting game and I think that the whole tournament was a good advertisement for rugby. I have definitely had some very positive feedback from friends and family on the level of play and also the style of play that Japan displayed. Also, something that we were proud of was the fact that in our four games, we didn't manage a win but had the MVP of the match three times. I think this is a sign of the attacking style we played and the level of our play, without actually getting the results."
Looking back at the tournament as a whole, how would you describe Japan's World Cup?
LT: "We definitely failed to meet our expectations. Two wins was the goal and to not get that was a failure, especially because we didn't play to our potential apart from in glimpses. Also, given that we had beaten both Tonga and Canada repeatedly in the last few years, but the World Cup is a whole different ball game."
What has to happen in Japanese rugby over the next 4yrs to ensure that they're in a better position to compete at England 2015?
LT: "A lot! I think a lot of the structure and coaching in the lower grades, ie high school and university rugby, has to improve. Japan has quite a high number of players at the younger age grades but there is a huge drop off in numbers after that. Better pathways for elite players to get better competition and coaching would possibly help this and it might be more relevant for 2019 than 2015 but something needs to change for rugby in Japan to continue to improve."
What is the biggest obstacle facing Japanese rugby in that 4yrs that would prevent any progress?
LT: "I think there are a lot of quality players coming through but definitely coaching at younger grades is a big issue, as well as having more matches against quality opposition, which is very important. The next coach of Japan is a huge thing also, it will have a huge bearing on how Japan perform at the next World Cup."
What's your take on the mistreatment of the lower ranked nations in terms of rest days between matches - do you agree that things need to change for England 2015?
LT: "That's a difficult question to find a solution to. We had a pretty rough draw, in the fact that not once did we get a full week between games, but the IRB are in control and revenue is important for them and playing the higher ranked teams on weekends increases revenue. It's something I believe should change, but won't."
John Kirwan has decided to leave his post as head coach, what kind of legacy does he leave behind?
LT: "JK has done a great job over the last five years. He brought huge professionalism with him as well as innovation and a real desire to make Japan a top ten nation and to grow rugby throughout the country. It is a real shame that we couldn't produce the performances at the correct time to pay him back for his efforts. I'm sure he will be coaching somewhere in the future, where I'm not sure, but he has the ability to coach any team at any level."
What did you think of the tournament experience as a whole and does New Zealand deserve another World Cup in the future?
LT: "I had a great time in New Zealand and, although I had my doubts before hand, I can say that from a players point of view it was an extremely well organised and enjoyable experience.
"The fact that the whole country got in behind it was awesome, everywhere we went we were really welcomed and made to feel at home. The crowds were amazing and the whole atmosphere was so positive and supportive and I was truly proud of being born in New Zealand with the way everything went. They proved that they could handle it again, no problem."
This article was previously published at www.ruggamatrix.com