By Jack Tarrant
TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan’s national coach Jamie Joseph believes his players are fitter and better prepared for the June tests against Italy and Georgia than they were this time last year.
The Brave Blossoms face Italy in Oita on June 9 and Kobe the following week before taking on the Georgians in Aichi as they continue preparations to host the Rugby World Cup next year.
The Japanese were soundly beaten twice in June last year by Ireland – one of their World Cup pool opponents – but Joseph, who also coaches Japanese Super Rugby team the Sunwolves, believes the squad is fitter now.
“We weren’t fit enough last year when we played Ireland,” Joseph said after naming his squad on Wednesday.
“We have periodically been running a lot of fitness tests so the bar is a lot higher and players must reach certain standards to maintain their position.
“We saw that last week against the Stormers where we lasted longer in the humidity and heat.”
The Sunwolves have won their last two games, against the Stormers in the heat of Hong Kong and against the Queensland Reds in Tokyo, before Joseph turned his attention to the national side.
In naming his squad, Joseph included Michael Leitch as captain and uncapped flanker Masakatsu Nishikawa, who turned 31 last week.
Nishikawa is the only uncapped player in a squad that includes many of the players Joseph has worked with at the Sunwolves.
Joseph remains confident he can still call upon defence coach John Plumtree, who was appointed as the head coach of the Wellington Hurricanes in March.
“John has committed to joining the national team for the test matches against Italy and Georgia and he has also committed to being part of the Japanese national team coaching panel for the November tests,” confirmed Joseph.
Japan have also lined up tests against England and world champions New Zealand in November.
“Italy and Georgia are both set-piece teams with very strong scrums, line-outs and mauls so they are exactly the type of challenge we need going into games against England and the All Blacks,” he said. “We can’t wait.”
(Reporting by Jack Tarrant, editing by Nick Mulvenney)