Japan beat South Africa in a pool game at the 2015 Rugby World Cup but fell just short of qualifying for the knockouts. They became the first team to win three games and not qualify.
At the 2019 World Cup Japan not only qualified, but they also topped their own pool, which contained two so-called ‘tier-one’ nations.
What has Jamie Joseph implemented as coach?
Fast-flowing rugby tied with great handling.
This is one thing Joseph managed to have his players master. There’s an offloading game in Japanese rugby which has been simply a brilliant edge to their attack. Their quick recycling can catch defenders unaware at times.
A good example: when Kotaro Matsushima scored a try against Russia in the first match it came through great hands offloaded by the masterful Timothy Lafaele and then the offload by Ryoto Nakamura.
An even better one would be the try against Scotland in the final pool stage game. It starts with a distribution from Yu Tamura and then to a forward runner, Shota Horie. Horie makes contact, offloads the ball to the big man Lappies Labuschagne. He takes contact, offloads to Lafaele, who gave the final offload for Keita Inagaki’s try. Where did this try come from? The first break by Kotaro Matsushima and then the pass out from the ruck.
Kenki Fukuoka’s break against South Africa was the best exhibition of their ball skills. Great hands fired the ball away through a series of runners before the ball came out onto the edge to Kenki Fukuoka. Fukuoka carried the ball, going for an in-out step on Cheslin Kolbe and making a long line break, also stepping through Willie le Roux’s tackle before finally being brought down by Damian De Allende. Japan use the handling to fire the ball out to the wing, where their fastest player, Fukuoka, is.
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Yu Tamura is used as a distributor as he has good skill in spotting space. Some strong passing from him was also the set-up to multiple Japanese tries.
They have one of the world’s best pair of midfielders in Ryoto Nakamura and Timothy Lafaele, who are probably the best pair of offloading midfielders. One excellent example would be against Ireland in their upset win. These men are the flash players. They are not the generals on the pitch, but they inject themselves into the play and make those crucial passes when Japan go for the try play.
One classic example of this would be Kenki Fukuoka’s try against Ireland. The ball comes fast from Fumiaki Tanaka off the ruck into the hands of Nakamura. A brilliant flat pass to Lafaele on the edge before the quick hands form the big Japanese centre puts Kenki Fukuoka through to score.
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Japan were also able to produce such moments against South Africa. Off the scrum, Lafaele takes the ball as a strike phase carrier, doing a one-handed flick offload in the tackle back to distributor Tamura positioned with several out-the-back options lined up outside him.
On defence, though they may not be the best in the world, they have some really solid tacklers in the forward pack and others. Joseph has taught his players to be fearless in the tackle and amp up the physicality to drive back the opposition.
The best offense is a good defence. By smothering the inside options, the only way the ball can go is outwards. Kenki Fukuoka’s intercept against Ireland would epitomise this. The Japanese defenders closed down the options for Ireland as the ball flew wide before Fukuoka shot up on the last one, tapped the ball and got control of it before sprinting through to the line.
Although he is eventually chased down, it had got Japan to the five-metre line.