Top League form Reflected in make-up of National Squad

The rankings at the end of the pool stage of the Japan Rugby Top League were somewhat replicated Monday when Japan National Team Director Yuichiro Fujii announced a 52-man training squad ahead of the Brave Blossoms’ game against the British and Irish Lions on June 26.

・Japan National Team Wider Training Squad for 2021

A day after Suntory and Panasonic Wild Knights were confirmed as the winners of the Red and White Conferences, respectively, the two sides provided a combined 23 players to Jamie Joseph’s squad.

Meanwhile, the six sides finishing fifth to eighth in their respective pools supplied a total of just six players to the group.

“We have picked the players who have performed well in the Top League and players we want to look at further,” Fujii said in announcing the squad which will be whittled down to 35 ahead of a training camp in Beppu, Oita, on Japan’s southern island of Kyushu from May 26 to June 8.

The Brave Blossoms will then play a warm-up match at ECOPA Stadium in Shizuoka on June 12, against an opponent still to be announced, before heading to Scotland for the Lions game.

Suntory were the only side to finish the first stage of the Top League with seven wins from seven games, and 12 Sungoliath players have earned call-ups.

Among them are the uncapped quintet of prop Yukio Morikawa, hooker Shunta Nakamura, scrum-half Naoto Saito and wings Shota Emi and Shogo Nakano.

Suntory’s attacking brand of rugby, which saw them just pip Panasonic as the top points scorers, has been rewarded with a number of young players – hooker Kosuke Horikoshi, No. 8 Tevita Tatafu, centre Yusuke Kajimura and fullback Seiya Ozaki – in line to add to the handful of caps they have previously won.

In all there are 21 players who have yet to wear the red and white jersey of Japan in a test match, including a number of foreign-born players who opted to stay in Japan during the COVID-19 pandemic in order to fulfil their eligibility requirements.

Prop Craig Millar, flankers Ben Gunter and Jack Cornelsen and centre Dylan Riley all remained in Ota, Gunma Prefecture with the Wild Knights and are among 11 Panasonic players in the squad.

The Wild Knights won six games and drew one during the regular season, and lock Ryota Hasegawa and scrum-half Taiki Koyama are among those rewarded for their good form with inclusion in the national set-up, alongside such national team regulars as prop Keita Inagaki and fly-half Rikiya Matsuda.

Panasonic’s draw came against Kobe Steel Kobelco Steelers, who have five players in the squad including powerful No. 8 Lui Naeata, who scored 9 tries in the first three rounds of the Top League, before missing out on the remaining four games through suspension.

Toyota Verblitz and Kubota Spears finished second and third, respectively, in the Red Conference, and both sides have three players in the squad, including scrum-half Kaito Shigeno (Toyota) and flanker Lappies Labuschagne (Kubota), two of 21 players remaining from the Rugby World Cup 2019 campaign.

The remainder of the players are spread out fairly evenly from across the Top League with NEC Green Rockets (bottom of the White Conference) and Mitsubishi Sagamihara Dynaboars (seventh in the Red Conference) the only two teams not represented. 

Despite finishing third behind Panasonic and Kobe Steel, NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes have just one representative in lock Wimpie van der Walt, while NTT Communications ShiningArcs – who finished fourth in their group despite a 94-31 loss to Suntory on the final weekend – do slightly better with the uncapped pair of fly-half Doga Maeda and centre Shane Gates earning selection.

Canon Eagles and Toshiba Brave Lupus had mixed performances in the pool stages, both finishing fifth in their respective groups.

But the nature behind Joseph’s decision making – of experience mixed with youth and newcomers – is reflected in their contribution to the squad with Canon No.8 Amanaki Lelei Mafi and fly-half Yu Tamura joined by uncapped scrum-half Koki Arai.

Meanwhile, Japan’s captain at the last two Rugby World Cups Michael Leitch is joined from Toshiba by uncapped wing Jone Naikabula.

Despite finishing bottom of the red pool, Munakata Sanix Blues provide three players including Mark Abbot, while Hino Red Dolphins (seventh in the White Conference) supply one in Liaki Moli, who like Abbot is not only a lock and uncapped but also a former member of the Sunwolves.

Three other clubs, Yamaha Jubilo, Honda Heat and Ricoh Black Rams are also represented by just one player in lock Uwe Helu, prop Koo Ji Won and flanker Shuhei Matsushima.

The Top Challenge League (the current second division) is represented by wing Siosaia Fifita who recently joined Kintetsu Liners, having helped Tenri University to the collegiate title earlier in the year.

Japan’s two overseas stars are also included with No. 8 Kazuki Himeno and wing Kotaro Matsushima set to join up with the squad directly from New Zealand and France, respectively.