It has been four long years since the Wallabies last played Japan. Remarkably, the Wallabies’ 63-30 win in Yokohama in 2017 was the only time the Australian side has played the Brave Blossoms in a Test on Japanese soil.
Even though Japan have played Test rugby since 1932, the Wallabies have only played them on five occasions, which is surprising given the geographic proximity between the two countries.
The Wallabies won two Tests in Australia in 1975 and beat the Brave Blossoms twice in World Cup pool games in 1987 and 2007. But curiously, far-flung nations such as Wales (nine), Italy (eight), Ireland (seven), Scotland (seven) and Argentina (six) have played more games against Japan than Australia.
The Wallabies’ lack of engagement with Japan is perhaps explained by the fact Australia is a leading power in world rugby, while Japan is regarded as a minnow, excluded from major international competitions such as the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship.
But if Australia, and the rest of the southern hemisphere rugby nations are to prosper in the long-term, Japan need to be brought into the Rugby Championship. Ever since their stunning 34-32 upset win against South Africa at the 2015 World Cup there has been talk of Japan joining the competition along with the Wallabies, All Blacks, Springboks and Argentina.
The commercial future for southern hemisphere rugby looks rather bleak, at least compared to the riches of Europe, but there is a potentially bright future for Asia-Pacific rugby.
The southern hemisphere nations are acutely aware of the economic potential of Japan – a sophisticated country of 125 million people – which was partly why Sanzaar brought the Sunwolves into Super Rugby in 2016. Unfortunately, they only lasted five years. The Sunwolves were expected to field a virtual Japanese Test team, but the Super Rugby franchise was not supported by the rich Top League sides. Failing to attract all of Japan’s best players, the Sunwolves were uncompetitive and got the axe.
But the fate of the Sunwolves should not deter Sanzaar from inviting Japan into the Rugby Championship. Unlike the Sunwolves, the national side would be able to field their strongest team because of World Rugby’s regulation 9.3, which ensures club players are available for Test duty during international windows.
The Springboks got revenge with a 26-3 win at the 2019 World Cup in Japan, but it was the Brave Blossoms’ first appearance in the quarter-finals, while the commercial success of the tournament indicated the popularity of the game in the East Asian superpower.
It is difficult to see Japan winning the Rugby Championship, but they would be as competitive as Italy are in the Six Nations. Even if they did not win many games, Japan would certainly add more economic uplift than Argentina, whose presence in the tournament had to be subsidised by World Rugby.
If Italy and Argentina are involved in rugby’s two greatest international competitions outside of the World Cup, surely there is a place somewhere for Japan, who are ranked No 10 in the world, only two places below Los Pumas and four places above the Azzurri.
It is understood Sanzaar will assess their performance – and that of Fiji – at the 2023 World Cup in France to determine whether they are ready for the Rugby Championship. While Japan has performed well at the last two World Cups, Sanzaar needs to satisfy itself that the improvement in Japanese rugby is sustainable and not just the result of a one-off generation of outstanding players.
They will receive a splendid opportunity to audition when they host the Wallabies for only the second time on Saturday in Oita – the scene of Australia’s exit from the 2019 World Cup. After winning four Tests in a row against the Springboks and Argentina in the Rugby Championship, the Wallabies will be expected to win convincingly, but the Brave Blossoms are a well-drilled team.
It will be a clash of the Kiwis in the coaches’ boxes with Dave Rennie up against his New Zealand compatriots Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown. Rennie and Joseph know each other very well, having coached against each other for five years in Super Rugby, both lifting the trophy with the Chiefs (twice) and Highlanders respectively. It might be up to assistant coaches Scott Wisemantel of Australia and the lateral-thinking Brown of Japan to provide any strategic surprises.
While the Wallabies have managed to play 16 Tests during the coronavirus pandemic, Japan have played only two games since 2019 – a 28-10 loss to the British and Irish Lions at Murrayfield in June and a creditable 39-31 defeat to Ireland in Dublin in July.
Like the Wallabies, Japan will also head to Europe in November to play Ireland in Dublin and Scotland in Edinburgh, but Australia will be the only opposition they play on home soil this year. It will almost certainly be the game the Brave Blossoms target.