TOKYO, Sept 17 — Japan are learning to live with the pressure of being World Cup hosts as they prepare for their tournament curtain raiser against Russia this week, flanker Pieter Labuschagne said today.
The Brave Blossoms have gone into very few World Cup matches as favourites down the years, but are expected to beat a Russian team smashed 85-15 by Italy in a recent warm-up.
With the eyes of the world on them, Labuschagne promised Japan would rise to the occasion in Tokyo on Friday.
“We’ve been working a really long time towards the World Cup and it’s going to be a special event,” said the Pretoria-born Labuschagne.
“Whether we’re favourites I don’t think it makes any difference,” he added. “We set our goals out before the World Cup and we know exactly what’s expected and what we need to do.
“Pressure makes you feel alive and brings out the best in you — hopefully we can show that on Friday night.”
Scrum coach Shin Hasegawa also shrugged off any fears of Japan cracking under the strain this week.
“Everyone will be feeling the pressure,” he shrugged, admitting he was more concerned with staying in the good books of match referee Nigel Owens.
“It’s a World Cup: England, New Zealand, South Africa — they will all be feeling it. Obviously it’s how we react that counts.”
Once tournament pushovers, Japan famously stunned two-time champions South Africa in their opening fixture four years ago on England’s south coast before producing further victories over Samoa and the United States under Eddie Jones.
Current coach Jamie Joseph has targeted a first-ever place in the quarter-finals, but to achieve that Japan will likely have to topple Scotland in Pool A, which also involves Samoa and Ireland, the world’s top-ranked team.
“We have an important first step this weekend,” said Labuschagne, refusing to look past a hulking Russian side who gave Japan a scare in a narrow 32-27 win last November.
“It’s going to be a physical battle against Russia. They’re a good team and it’s about absorbing their pressure and trying to apply some of our own.”
If Joseph, who will be without winger Kenki Fukuoka with a calf strain, has looked a little fraught since a thumping 41-7 defeat by the Springboks earlier this month, his players were displaying no such signs of stress.
“I just want to play the game,” growled Tongan-born lock Isileli Nakajima, flashing a gold-toothed smile.
“I don’t take Russia lightly — they’re as big as South Africa, so we will have to show them the same respect.”
Nakajima at least will be one of the most recognisable players at the World Cup, having raised a few eyebrows by bleaching his hair and beard blond.
“I like it, my friends tell me it looks good,” grinned the 30-year-old, who has been delighting Japan fans by following them back on social media.
“If someone follows me on Instagram I’ll follow them back — all it takes is a push of a button. It proves I’m not fake!” — AFP