Seongnam, South Korea. Kim Myong-won couldn’t have summed up the state of Asian rugby any better as she watched South Korea wrap up second in the regional 5 Nations tournament behind Japan.
“We’ll be playing for second place for a long time,” Kim said during South Korea’s 47-21 win against the United Arab Emirates during the weekend at Seongnam Stadium, near Seoul.
South Koreans love nothing more than defeating neighboring Japan in any contest. But when it comes to rugby, the chances are remote.
The Brave Blossoms, as the Japanese national team has become known, have never lost in the five-year history of the Asian 5 Nations.
This season, Japan amassed 312 points in four matches, only giving up 11. But while it’s a regional powerhouse, Japan has struggled to compete at the World Cup featuring the most elite teams. Japan hasn’t won a match at the World Cup since 1991, but has started closing the gap. A draw against Canada and a competitive first hour of the group match against eventual finalist France were encouraging.
A stronger challenge in Asia could only boost the team now ranked No. 14 in the world. Japan, set to host the 2019 World Cup, is ambitious and wants to become a major force in a sport dominated by countries such as New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, England and France. It has a well-established professional league and has employed some well-recognized coaches to guide the national team.
But there are drawbacks to being top team in a weak zone.
“Japan won’t get in the top 10 by beating us,” UAE captain Alistair Thompson said. “We are an amateur team, we have jobs and families and even when we have time, there are still club commitments.”
The UAE finished fourth in the 5 Nations, behind Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong. Kazakhstan placed fifth and will be relegated to a lower tier in 2013, replaced by the Philippines.
Japan has started participating in the Pacific Nations Cup against Tonga, Fiji and Samoa to increase its exposure to tougher international competition.
Coach Eddie Jones, who guided Australia to the 2003 World Cup final, plans to use his strongest team for the 2012 Pacific Nations Cup, something that Japan rarely has to do in Asia.
Japan’s best hope of increased continental competition may come from South Korea, which picked up an impressive 21-19 win in Hong Kong on its way to securing second. That result caused Japan to send a stronger team than usual to Seoul, and while it won 52-8, the scoreline was inflated by three late tries as the Koreans were reduced to 14 men with a player in the sin-bin.
With three of the Korean team in action against the UAE playing professionally in Japan, there is hope that the gap between first and second could narrow over time.
Yoo Young-nam scored a crucial try against the UAE and plays his club rugby with Japan’s Panasonic Wild Knights.
“Japan wants Korea to become stronger,” Yoo said. “At the moment, it has no pressure and no competition and if it wants to improve, it needs tougher games.”
There is a long way to go for South Korea, with 2,800 players compared with Japan’s 122,000. South Korea’s proximity to Japan and the relative ease with which athletes can settle culturally has Yoo hoping more of his compatriots move east.
“We have no professional league in Korea, so it helps our players to go to Japan,” Yoo said. “If we had our own professional league then everything would change quickly, but that is not likely to happen for a long time.”