Rugby: Japan odds-on favorite to beat South Korea in ARC opener

KYODO NEWS By Rich Freeman, KYODO NEWS - Apr 21, 2017 - 17:37 | Sports, All

A big banner at the Incheon Namdong Asiad Rugby Field proudly proclaims "We Try Miracle." And based on recent results, South Korea may need divine intervention to upset Japan in Saturday's Asia Rugby Championship opener.

The Brave Blossoms have not lost to the Koreans since 2002 and last year a weakened Japan side ran amok winning 85-0 and 60-3 as they picked up their 24th Asian title, and ninth straight since the format was changed in 2008.

"We are well prepared but you never know how things will go till you play," Japan head coach Jamie Joseph said Friday.

Joseph has picked a stronger side than appeared last year.

"The performance is paramount to me. If everyone does their own jobs then I will be happy. We need to learn how to create tries for when we take on a higher level of opposition. If players start getting selfish then there is a problem. That's not part of the game plan."

Yutaka Nagare leads a side with plenty of Top League -- if not test-match -- experience, and the physicality and fitness of the visitors should prove no match for the hosts.

"He has a good balance, a good character and integrity and is a funny guy. He is comfortable with me as a foreign coach and his way of demanding things from the players is unique," Joseph said of his new captain.

Hooker Takeshi Hino, No. 8 Yoshitaka Tokunaga, flyhalf Jumpei Ogura and center Ryohei Yamanaka are among a number of players released from the Sunwolves squad who will be looking for a big ARC in order to try and cement a place in the national team for the June tests against Romania and Ireland, when Japan's Super Rugby players return to the fold.

The game also gives Joseph a chance to look at two promising student fullbacks: Ryuji Noguchi and Seiya Ozaki.

Joseph said the coming games would be a chance to see if they can play at this level on the wing.

"They are both electric and have good awareness, and having them play on the wing gives us more options (in the long run)."

The Koreans, meanwhile, come into the game with limited preparation and missing a number of Japan-based players, such as fullback Jang Sung Min, who joined NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes in April after finishing his military service.

But head coach John Walters is hopeful his side can put up a better showing than last year.

"Last year was a really important learning phase. We thought we had the best team available but we realized we were missing a lot of players with injuries and learnt a lot about the players and the domestic situation here."

Six months later, Walters and his assistant Deon Muir took their side to Chile for a ground-breaking tour that saw the Koreans share the two-test series.

"Going there was huge and it was the first time we had beaten a side outside Asia," Walters said.

With the field in perfect condition and a warm sunny day forecasted, Japan will look to run the ball at every opportunity.

But Korean captain Kim Jeong Min said he felt his side's skill-set and the enthusiasm of his young teammates would see them lift their game.

"The mental side of things will be big tomorrow as we know we will have to defend a lot," he said.

One of those young Koreans is reserve scrumhalf Kim Sung Hyun, who backs up the more abrasive Shin Ki Cheol.

"He is full of energy, and for a young man very confident and a great communicator, which is unusual in this type of culture," Walters said of Kim, who is a student at Yonsei University.

The Brave Blossoms will fly back to Japan on Sunday before taking on the same opponents in a week's time in Tokyo. Hong Kong enter the competition in Week 3 when they take on Joseph's side at Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground.

Apr 21, 2017 | KYODO NEWS