Friday, 23 February 2018

Sunwolves foreign born selection leaves many Japan fans unhappy

Image result for Jamie Joseph sunwolves
As RWC 2019 draws closer we are reaching the part of the 4 year cycle where teams are narrowing down their selections ahead of the tournament. In the case of Japan with the delayed arrival of Jamie Joseph along with the reported burnout and loss of motivation amongst some of their previous RWC squad has resulted in higher turnover of players than anticipated and seen them about 6-12 months behind in building their squad compared to their equivalent position 4 years ago.

Finally last November they started to assemble more of a settled squad. Now with Jamie Joseph in charge of the Sunwolves they are aiming to catch up on lost time and this year's Super Rugby side resembles a lot more what the Japan national side may look like this year.

However this has made some unhappy in Japan as Joseph's selections seem to indicate the distinct possibility he will be heading towards the run up to the 2019 home World Cup with several recently qualified residency players from overseas.

This is far from unusual in Japan. Tongan born players who moved to University have long been part of Japanese rugby as far back as Nofomuli Taumoefolau and Sinali Latu at the inaugural World Cup in 1987. In the professional era starting with the 1999 World Cup side led by Andrew McCormick and in every tournament since Japanese sides have also featured New Zealand born players who have qualified via residency after spending three years in the domestic league. Something that is certainly not unusual in international rugby for several other nations too.

Over the years Japan has always got more criticism than most for fielding foreign born players. Partly because players from New Zealand stand out a lot more in the Japan team than they do in for example Scotland or Ireland. But also because foreign born selections have often been highly unpopular and a cause for disgruntlement amongst Japan's own fans as well.

Few complain of a foreign born presence when the team is successful as they were at the most recent World Cup under Eddie Jones. But after failure to meet expectation at a World Cup as happened in 2011 under John Kirwan there was a backlash against heavily New Zealand influenced selection. The 1999 World Cup New Zealanders are not remembered particularly fondly by Japan fans either.

There are a number players involved with the Sunwolves this year who will be qualified for Japan by 2019 after three years of Top League. These include Ruan Smith and Hencus van Wyk at tighthead prop. Grant Hattingh and Sam Wykes at lock. Willie Britz and Lappies Labuschagné in the back row (in addition to Wimpie van der Walt who made his international debut last November).

Plus in the backs Gerhard van den Heever and Robbie Robinson (also in addition to Will Tupou and Lomano Lemeki who also both already capped by Japan).
Image result for Grant Hattingh
Grant Hattingh is set to become the
tallest ever player to represent
Japan later this year

At least some of these players have clearly been selected with their qualification for the national team in mind. In certain cases this will shore up some weak areas and be a good asset to the team. Currently Japan have very little strength at tighthead prop and struggled to find genuine second row replacements for Luke Thompson and Hitoshi Ono. Any sensible Japan fans ought to acknowledge boosting depth in these positions is necessary.

Whilst in the back row Japan already have an excellent trio in Himeno, Leitch, and Mafi as first choice. Professional rugby squads rely upon having plenty of depth and it's also possible the South African trio of Britz, Labuschagne, and Van der Walt may be useful options either for the bench or to raise the standard of competition in the extended squad.

But the far more controversial selections are in the backs where Japan has a lot more talent currently and some of the country's best young players have been left out.

Under John Kirwan Japan had foreign born players first choice throughout the core of the backline at 10-12-13-15. Under Eddie Jones this was reduced as he had just Male Sa'u at 13 in his starting XV that beat South Africa. It seems Joseph, who selected just two Japanese born backs in his first Sunwolves lineup, may be leaning more towards the Kirwan selection.
Image result for Takuya Yamasawa
Takuya Yamasawa is a notable
omission in Joseph's Sunwolves
squad having impressed with
Panasonic last season

There is a difference between Kirwan and Joseph though in that the former had far weaker backline talent to select from.

Amongst those outside Joseph's Sunwolves squad includes Takuya Yamasawa, Yoshikazu Fujita, Rikiya Matsuda, or Yusuke Kajimura (Ryuta Noguchi was a very late call up to the squad) who are all highly regarded talents in Japan. Whilst some of the foreign born backs in the Sunwolves squad are journeymen or not particularly well known and played all the recent domestic season with some of the worst teams in the Top League or even in the Japanese second division. Van den Heever's selection over both Fujita or Shota Emi for instance is one that is not popular with Japanese fans.

In previous years Japan fans who complained of foreign presence were quickly given a reality check in the periods of 2000-02 or 2004 where selection policy briefly changed not to pick many residency players and results duly suffered badly.

Now though there is generally more belief in the Japanese talent available and thus more pressure on Joseph than his predecessors. If his selection is going to have a heavy foreign presence he must deliver quickly results for Japanese rugby. If not there will be many unhappy Japan fans calling for change.

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