Japan are to use the Asian Five Nations to groom players for the next World Cup and the 2019 edition on home soil after five trophies in five years left the outcome of this year’s tournament in little doubt.
With 20 bonus-point wins in 20 outings, the regional rugby union event has struggled to provide meaningful competition for ambitious Japan, who are hoping to break into the sport’s top 10 in the next two years.
The Brave Blossoms open the tournament against the newly promoted Philippines Volcanoes, who have been making waves in the lower divisions, today, while Hong Kong host the United Arab Emirates at Hong Kong Football Club.
“We need to further develop our squad, so I anticipate at least a 20 percent change in personnel from last season,” said Japan coach Eddie Jones, who took Australia to the 2003 World Cup final.
“A couple of our senior players are also playing in Super Rugby this season which will give the youngsters a wonderful chance to step up,” he added.
Hooker Shota Horie joined the Melbourne Rebels in the Super 15, while scrumhalf Fumiaki Tanaka is with the Otago Highlanders and Japan’s New Zealand-born flanker Michael Leitch is training with the Waikato Chiefs.
“We know Hong Kong will be well coached and we know the Philippines will also be hard to beat as a number of their players figure in the top league in Australia and Japan,” Jones said. “But our target is to win the championship by playing the Japan way — good, attacking rugby.”
Hong Kong have to balance their ambitions of trying to become a core team on the Sevens World Series next year with the aim of remaining in the top five next season, which would give them a crack at qualifying for the 2015 World Cup.
“It will be a fine balancing act,” said Dai Rees, the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union’s head of performance.
“We need to win two games to make certain of our standing in this competition next season,” Rees added.
Newcomers the Philippines have lost only one match in the past five years, a record second only to Japan’s, and they stormed into the top tier unbeaten last season. However, their big game will be against UAE on May 18, which is shaping as a relegation battle.
The UAE flirted with the drop last year, but they have gained International Rugby Board membership and UAE sports federation status which is expected to help them preserve their top-five spot for another season.