Japan's national team caught attention four years ago by upsetting two-time champion South Africa in the Rugby World Cup in England. Organizers would love a similar result again to drive interest in a country where baseball and soccer are still more popular, but rugby has deep roots.
Jamie Joseph's Japan squad faces 20th-ranked Russia to open the six-week, 20-team tournament on Friday at Tokyo Stadium, which is set to be packed for a Pool A match that at any previous World Cup would have attracted little outside attention.
Amid many changes, one thing remains the same: two-time defending champion New Zealand is a slight favorite in the tightest tournament to date. South Africa, 2003 champion England and No. 1-ranked Ireland have strong claims, while Six Nations winner Wales and two-time champion Australia are also in the mix.
If you love drama, it comes very early. The New Zealand All Blacks and South Africa's Springboks face off Saturday in Yokohama in the most compelling group game of the tournament — and, perhaps a preview of the Nov. 2 final.
In other big games on the opening weekend, three-time finalist France takes on Argentina in a Pool C game that will likely hurt the team that loses — considering England is in the same group — Australia faces Fiji in Pool D and Ireland takes on Scotland.
South Africa and New Zealand have met four times at the Rugby World Cup and each have two wins — three of those decided by four points or fewer. The last four head-to-heads between the long-time rivals in the southern hemisphere's Rugby Championship have been decided by two points or fewer, including a 16-16 draw this season.
"Our last three matches have ended in stalemate, one win each and a draw, for an aggregate score of 82-82," Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus said. "I think we have a healthy respect for each other's capabilities but it will come down to a small moment to decide a big game in the end, I suppose."
Even beyond the All Blacks contingent, there is New Zealand flavor everywhere. Seven of the 20 head coaches are Kiwis. And teams like Japan, which are building and rely on some outside help, are sprinkled with coaches and players with roots away from the country.
Eddie Jones, who coached Japan in the 2015 World Cup, is handling England this time. He's an Australian, whose mother is Japanese and coached his country of birth to a runner-up finish in the 2003 World Cup.
Jamie Joseph is coaching Japan this time. He's a New Zealander who played for the All Blacks in the 1995 World Cup before switching to play for Japan four years later. Japan's captain, Michael Leitch, moved from New Zealand to Japan as a teenager and now probably speaks the language as well as he speaks English.
Japan shares its group with Ireland, Scotland, Russia and former quarterfinalist Samoa. After Russia it plays Ireland, then Samoa, making its last pool match against Scotland a possibly decisive contest for second place if Ireland tops the pool as expected.
Japan lost its last World Cup warm-up to South Africa 41-7, a match Joseph used to experiment with his lineup and game plan. "I think we are near the peak," Leitch said. "The latest game against South Africa made what we need to work on even clearer, and we're almost getting to the peak. I'm sure we'll step up each game toward the quarterfinals."
Public interest in Japan is strong, although pressure should be moderate. Making the quarterfinals would be a giant step, though coming up short would not be a shock. When Japan and South Korea co-hosted the soccer World Cup in 2002, the sport's popularity boomed in both countries and both national teams achieved well beyond their previous best performances. The rugby hierarchy is aiming for a similar boost.
Yutaka Nagare will start at scrumhalf for Japan against Russia, and admitted he expects to "be nervous." "The feeling on the field (in practice) was the best we could have hoped for," he said. "The best stage is awaiting us."
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