Japan stands on the brink of qualification for the World Cup quarter-finals after victories over Russia, Ireland and Samoa, but still needs to get by Scotland to be assured of its place. Scotland was its nemesis in 2015 – when the Blossoms also won three times – most famously against South Africa.
This time the issue may be settled by a factor even more formidable than any opponent on the pitch. Typhoon Hagibis has already forced the cancellation of Saturday’s games, somewhat sensationally. Hopefully that will not be extended to Sunday, though it is the host nation itself which would stand to benefit from any such scenario.
If the Brave Blossoms do progress, it seems certain they will be the only nation outside the eight foundation members to reach this year’s quarter-finals. Fiji, Samoa and Canada are the only other second tier nations to have reached this stage in tournament history – the former pair on two occasions.
Further good news for Japan are the record TV ratings for the national team’s games. A peak audience of over 46 per cent watched the win over Samoa, surpassing the 25 million Japanese viewers who tuned in for the corresponding encounter four years ago according to World Rugby figures.
Should the Blossoms fail to reach the last eight however, we will have the first and only quarter-finals featuring the eight foundation unions since 2003. This – rather than typhoons – should be the international rugby community’s major concern as the group phase of the tournament approaches its conclusion.
The cry has inevitably gone up for Japan to be added to the Rugby Championship following their victory over Ireland. After all, the World League proposal tabled – and rejected – earlier this year included Japan and Fiji in the non-European half of the premier division. So why not just add them to SANZAAR?
First, there is the geography. Japan is the antipodes of Argentina and South Africa. The flight from Tokyo to Buenos Aires is 27 hours, and 19 to Johannesburg. That’s roughly the equivalent of London to Auckland and Sydney, respectively. Can anyone imagine Australia and New Zealand competing in an expanded Six Nations every year?
It’s a ludicrous amount of travel and would add to the already extensive distances the teams are required to cover. Have we learnt nothing from the Sunwolves’ involvement in Super Rugby? The Tokyo franchise was originally placed in one of the South African conferences and had to play half its home games at neutral venues. Needless to add, it was not successful.
Next is the culture and history. Japan has nothing in common with Argentina and South Africa beyond the fact none of them are in Europe. But is that really how the boundaries of international rugby competition are going to be drawn up in the twenty-first century? The southern hemisphere is already a vast enough geographical zone as it is, without throwing in anyone from outside the western tip of Eurasia.
Finally, there’s the standard of matches. There remains the question of whether Japan would be up to the task, especially in its away games. South Africa’s 41-7 win over the Blossoms in a World Cup warm-up suggests they would struggle. The latest results I can find for Japan against the other Rugby Championship teams are a 69-31 defeat to the All Blacks in Tokyo last year, a 56-24 loss to the Pumas at the same venue in 2016 and a 91-3 annihilation by the Wallabies at the 2007 World Cup in France.
Of course, Japan are not going to get any better without playing these teams on a more regular basis, and I am a proponent of more interaction between first and second tier. But simply adding them to a southern hemisphere championship already spanning three continents doesn’t seem like the most practical way of going about it.
Let New Zealand and Australia align themselves with Japan in an annual Pacific Championship instead. These nations do have a geographical feature in common and the Pacific Islands should also be involved. At the end of the day, SANZAAR always appeared more of a stopgap to usher in the professional era than a permanent arrangement and after quarter-of-a-century, the cracks are there and plain to see.
Perhaps a single-round southern hemisphere championship could be retained. But the novelty of annual Tests with South Africa and competition against its top provincial sides has long since passed. It’s time to seek a new model.