The last Top League tournament before the 2019 Rugby World Cup has officially started.

At this stage of the World Cup cycle, Jamie Joseph will have more focus on putting his strongest match-day 23 together rather than bringing in new players. This article will analyse the key players that need to show form in order for Japan to perform during the November test series ahead of the World Cup.

1014 Japan Caps

On the interactive plot above, the blue bars show the number of caps Japan had in each position for the (left to right blue bar) 2016 November Tests, 2017 June Tests, 2017 November Tests and 2018 June tests. The 2016 June Tests was omitted because this series took place before Jamie Joseph took over as head coach. The red bar shows the number of caps Japan had in each position at the 2015 Rugby World Cup.


November 2016: 108 caps
June 2017: 35 caps
November 2017: 34 caps
June 2018: 40 caps
Rugby World Cup 2015: 142 caps

Jamie Joseph lost over a 100 caps in the props since the last World Cup due to the omission of the first choice props at the last World Cup, Masataka Mikami and Kensuke Hatakeyama. Key players here are Keita Inagaki (Loosehead) and Takuma Asahara (Tighthead). Keita Inagaki is the only prop at the last World Cup who has been picked by Jamie Joseph in the past year. Takuma Asahara made a brilliant come back into the national side for the first time in four years at the 2017 June tests and has been capped seven times under Jamie Joseph for his exceptional scrummaging for the Sunwolves.


November 2016: 87 caps
June 2017: 53 caps
November 2017: 64 caps
June 2018: 68 caps
Rugby World Cup 2015: 93 caps

Hooker is definitely the least concerning position in the pack for Joseph in terms of experience. He has five hookers with test match experience where four of them are aged 30 or below. However, Shota Horie (aged 32) had 55 of the 68 caps in June. So as long as Horie stays fit, Japan should have no concerns at Hooker.

2nd/3rd Row:

November 2016: 15 caps
June 2017: 161 caps
November 2017: 105 caps
June 2018: 141 caps
Rugby World Cup 2015: 377 caps

The biggest surprise in the locks and loose forwards was how the team only had 15 caps of experience for these positions at the 2016 November tests. But this number has been greatly increased with the inclusion of Michael Leitch and Amanaki Mafi in the next three squads as well as Shinya Makabe, who only missed the November 2017 tests due to injury. However, with the international retirement of Luke Thompson and the ageing of 40-year-old veteran Hitoshi Ono, Japan lost 161 caps of experience in the locks just from these two players.

Key players in the second and back row are Michael Leitch and Kazuki Himeno. Former Japan head coach Eddie Jones pointed out that because Leitch was born in New Zealand and completed High School and University in Japan, his bilingual skills are essential for smooth communication between the English-speaking referee and the Japanese players.

Kazuki Himeno is the biggest breakthrough player since the last World Cup in the pack. He has learned a lot as a 23-year-old captain for the Toyota Berlitz under World Cup winning head coach, Jake White. He has Super Rugby and test match experience as a lock and as a loose forward, so his versatility could be important to add mich-needed depth in the second row.

Scrum Half:

November 2016: 70 caps
June 2017: 83 caps
November 2017: 89 caps
June 2018: 95 caps
Rugby World Cup 2015: 92 caps

Yutaka Nagare has been the biggest breakthrough back during this World Cup cycle. He first captained Suntory as a 23 year-old and has lead the side to back-to-back Top League titles in 2017 and 2018. Although he currently only has 12 caps, he was the co-captain of the Sunwolves this season and thus has a lot of experience playing high-level rugby. Nagare will be desperate to show form during the upcoming Top League season to win the tussle for the number 9 jersey against the experienced Fumiaki Tanaka with 67 caps.

Fly Half/Centre:

November 2016: 87 caps
June 2017: 106 caps
November 2017: 148 caps
June 2018: 132 caps
Rugby World Cup 2015: 126 caps

10, 12 and 13 are definitely the least concerning positions. The November 2017 and June 2018 squads exceeded the number of caps the last World Cup squad had. Furthermore, the first choice 12 and 13, Harumichi Tatekawa and Timothy Lafaele respectively can both play 10. These two players along with the first choice 10, Yu Tamura has been key players for the Sunwolves in the last two seasons, so as long as this doesn’t take a toll on their fitness, the five-eighths and centre channel combination is forming well for next year.

Back Three:

November 2016: 64 caps
June 2017: 68 caps
November 2017: 84 caps
June 2018: 96 caps
Rugby World Cup 2015: 154 caps

The biggest loss in the outside backs since the last World Cup is definitely Ayumu Goromaru. Unfortunately, he lost his form after a superb World Cup that made him become the highest paid rugby player in the following year. If he had been good enough to make the June 2018 squad, the number of caps in the back three would have totalled 152 caps, just two caps less than the last World Cup squad.

Kotaro Matsushima has definitely been the first choice fullback for Jamie Joseph, despite playing on the wing for 80 minutes for all four matches at the last World Cup. Furthermore, Kenki Fukuoka and Lomano Lemeki who played in the Sevens side that beat New Zealand and made the Semi-Finals at the Rio Olympics has continued to impress the coaches on the wings.

Data sources can be found for: November 2016 squad, June 2017 squad, November 2017 squad, June 2018 squad and the RWC2015 squad.


Author: Kaito Goto


  1. Thanks, Kaito, this is the 1st in depth look at the Japanese team I have seen. I will definitely be looking out for these players in the Autumn! Less than a year to go!

  2. Thanks for the article Kaito, i will look at how Japan progress towards the home RWC because in the 2 test against my Italy i was impressed by the speed and agility of Japanese manuevering and ball-in-hand confidence

    I really hope you guys make it to the quarter final, but Scotland won’t be easy to beat

  3. superignazzio thanks for your comment. I’m hoping Japan can progress but I really want to see at least one country outside the top 9 progressing. The 16 quarter final spots in the last two world cups have been monopolized by the top 9. All the best to Italy, Georgia and Fiji as well!

  4. Kaito,

    Last year I studied the draw game of how japan attacks especially from the wing channel breakdown and how they have a forward coming at an angle slightly towards the 9 and then they have the three forwards set up behind that parson coming down on the 9 with an out the back option behind them! I absolutely have loved that option in our play and I have used it in a middle punch as well! You see it when Exeter of the premiership use it effectively on the weak side of play but I wish more teams used it on the strong side of play! I would love an analysis of how Japan plays now! They also have this technique of on kickoffs they love to immediately take it into contact from deep and usually that runner is trying to get the ball as far away from the sidelines as hard as they can! They follow this up with a long spin pass where forwards are running screens for the backs and they get it out wide for their backs who usually have a hard time defending it! It was used effectively in the first minute of play in the Game they drew with France! I just would love to see how this slight adjustment to the typical 1-3-3-1 can work!!!

    • Thanks a lot for this intelligent comment John Klein. Shows you have a superb rugby brain. I never realized Japan has been using the technique you mentioned for the wing channel breakdown. For the kick-off technique, the best example I can remember was an excellent tackle Yamada made from a restart against Argentina in 2016. But I didn’t notice it to the detail that you have described it to.

      I will publish an article on the predicted squad and pods that will play against the All Blacks in November. But the article will be highly data-driven. It would be invaluable to hear your “on-field”-driven opinion once it’s published.

  5. Not for the wing channel but from the wing channel! I struggle sometimes with my fat fingers! Japan has great potential and you saw it in that particular game v France! They move the ball very effectively wide! They actually started in that game do what Has been called bypassing the middle breakdown very effectively! Joseph is an amazing coach! So many things one can take from Japan rugby with Eddie Jones and now with Joseph


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here