Pressure on Japan in Rugby World Cup opener against Russia

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Russian rugby team's Vasily Artemyev, right, attends a welcome ceremony in Saitama, near Tokyo, Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019, ahead of the Rugby World Cup. At left is Saitama mayor Hayato Shimizu. (Kyodo News via AP)
Russian rugby team’s Vasily Artemyev, right, attends a welcome ceremony in Saitama, near Tokyo, Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019, ahead of the Rugby World Cup. At left is Saitama mayor Hayato Shimizu. (Kyodo News via AP)

Tokyo (AP) — The public awareness campaign has gone into overdrive at the Rugby World Cup, with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe getting a close look at the Webb Ellis Cup and receiving the red-and-white jersey of the national team from captain Michael Leitch.

And the public response has been big, with a reported 15,000 people attending a practice session for the Welsh squad, and the New Zealand All Blacks being swamped with fans.

Leitch’s Japan lineup will have its first genuine taste of the expectation which comes with being Rugby World Cup host when it plays Russia on Friday in the opening match of the first to be held in Asia.

An upset win over South Africa at the 2015 World Cup swelled Japan’s fan-base at home and abroad and has added to the expectation that they may be the giant-killers of this year’s tournament.

Leitch says his players are happy to live with heightened pressure and have their sights firmly set on making the quarterfinals for the first time. An emphatic win by 10th-ranked Japan over 20th-ranked Russia might help quiet the players’ nerves and those of their fans while lauching the tournament on a high note.

Japan will have to be quickly into stride as it needs not only to beat Russia but to do so by a large margin if it is to have a chance of progressing to the knockout rounds. Points differential could come into play in deciding the top two teams in what seems to be an even pool.

Japan shares the group with top-ranked Ireland, Scotland, Russia and former quarterfinalist Samoa. After Russia it plays plays Ireland, then Samoa, making its last pool match against Scotland a possibly decisive contest for second place if Ireland tops the pool as expected.

“We have prepared well for our goal of making the quarterfinals,” Leitch said after his team’s 41-7 loss to South Africa in its final World Cup warm-up. “We just want to play to our ability.”

The loss to South Africa was not in any way indicative of Japan’s comparative standing with Tier One nations or of any decline in its ability since the last World Cup. Coach Jamie Joseph used the match for experimentation and to adapt a game plan to those of its pool opponents.

“The biggest lesson for us is that when we make a small mistake against a Tier One team they will punish us and score points,” Joseph said. “They kicked the ball and forced us into mistakes. Ireland and Scotland will play like that against us, so it’s an area we need to work on.”

Joseph is aware of the pressure that will be on his squad in the opening match and for the remainder of the World Cup, and is sure his team can cope.

“We are a well-prepared team both physically and mentally,” he said. “We understand what our roles are, whether it’s the coaching staff or the medical staff or the players. Everyone understands how important this event is going to be but none more than our staff and the players themselves. We want to make everyone proud.”

One of the men under most pressure is flyhalf Yu Tamura. Tamura was a bench player at the last World Cup but now has the task of guiding Japan’s attacking game.

“This is a game with 15 players,” Tamura said. “It’s the same for any country. Everyone has to do a good job and it’s difficult to deal with it all alone. The stage is all set with the home fans behind us.”

Russia may still be startled to find itself at the center of the spectacle of the World Cup’s opening match. The Russians were lucky to qualify, doing so only after Romania was disqualified for fielding ineligible players.

Russia’s warm-up form has not been impressive: it conceded 162 points including 24 tries in its last three matches. But captain Vasily Artemyev said those games allowed Russia to overcome some rustiness and promised his team would be better at the World Cup.

Both teams were expected to announce match-day squads on Wednesday.