Japan Face Uphill Struggle to Reach World Cup Knockout Stages

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Japan players line up during the national anthems before a match in Treviso, Italy, on Aug. 26.

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan will be hoping for a turnaround in fortunes in France after a lacklustre run of World Cup warm-up matches lacked the spark that took them to the quarter-finals on home soil four years ago.

They have won only one of five games this year and on current form will struggle in their pool despite a generous draw that pits them against none of the top five teams.

The Brave Blossoms do, however, have a record of bucking expectations at the World Cup, spectacularly prevailing against South Africa with an 84th-minute try in 2015 and dazzling Scotland in 2019 to reach the last eight for the first time.

The combination of panache and teamwork that outclassed Scotland and captured the hearts of the host nation has been absent of late, however.

Japan conceded 35 points against a rampant Fiji at the Pacific Nations Cup in August and competed but failed to convince in losses against weaker opposition in Samoa and Italy.

They will probably need to avenge the defeat by Samoa and beat either Argentina or former champions England to be in with a chance of reaching the knockout stage.

Jamie Joseph’s side may fancy their chances against a dishevelled England who have lost five of their last six games but Japan were routed 52-13 when the teams met last November.

Argentina, sixth in the world rankings, are likely to pose an even stiffer challenge. They edged Australia and almost upset world champions South Africa at the Rugby Championship in July.

The Japan squad is close to full strength, with former captain Michael Leitch returning after a three-match ban to appear at his fourth World Cup.

Flanker Lappies Labuschagne, who was also suspended for three games for a dangerous tackle against Fiji, will miss the opener against Chile in Toulouse on Sept. 10 but could return to face England.

The red cards hampered Japan’s warm-up efforts against Samoa and Fiji but they showed grit and some flair in their 42-21 loss to Italy in late August, scoring three tries, two of which came in the 10th and 17th phases respectively.

The days when Japan would ship 100 or more points in the pool phase may be long gone but reaching the knockout stages for the second time in their 10th World Cup campaign looks a big ask.