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After 4 World Cups, Thompson sees bright future for Japan – The Associated Press – en Español

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — After almost 20 years in Japan’s professional leagues and after four World Cups with the Japan national team, the New Zealand-born lock Luke Thompson has been uniquely placed to observe the growth and development of rugby in Japan.
When he first arrived in Japan at 22 he was an oddity among the foreign players then playing in a relatively new professional competition. Most imported players were at the end of their careers, seeking a lucrative contract before retirement.
Thompson spoke to the Associated Press from his deer farm at Cust near Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island, during a brief break before returning to his club, Urayasu D-Rocks, which plays in the second division of the Japan League.
A new league season begins in Japan on Saturday and it is a much changed environment from the one Thompson experienced when he first landed there. Thompson has seen the league grow in stature and quality to become a magnet for the world’s top players, no longer at the end but at the height of their careers.
At the same time, the Japan national team is less than a year away from another World Cup. Thompson played at the 2007, 2011, 2015 and 2019 Rugby World Cups and has seen the so-called Brave Blossoms truly blossom to become giant killers at the last two world tournaments.
Thompson lived through that era of improvement. He first played for Japan in 2007 when he became naturalized and was selected for the national team by then coach John Kirwan, one of the great New Zealand All Blacks players. The World Cup that year was not a good one for Japan. Its only small success was a 12-12 draw with Canada in group play.
Thompson believes the improvement in the Japan team began at that time, first under Kirwan and then under the Australian Eddie Jones, who took the team to the 2015 World Cup where it shocked the rugby world by beating South Africa.
“Looking back now we went into (the 2007 World Cup) with expectations which were not as high as they could have been,” Thompson said. “We were just there and we wanted to enjoy the moment, play as hard as we can but we never truly, truly believed we were going to be competitive. One thing Eddie (Jones) brought into the team was the expectation and belief.
“That process was started by (Kirwan), that increased professionalism within the Japan squad and trying to grow the physical capabilities of the players and the expectations around their play. That started with (Kirwan) but Eddie really took it to another level and created a new belief, got buy-in from the players and that translated into the top league as well.”
Thompson said the physicality from 2004 to now has “improved tremendously,” helped by the introduction of he Japan-based Sunwolves into the Super Rugby competition, and Jones’ “development of the team was pretty amazing” from 2011-15.
He describes Jones, recently dropped as England head coach, as a “dichotomy of personalities.”
“He’s a genius when it comes to rugby in terms of his ability to squeeze every bit of potential out of what he has,” Thompson said. “But the way he runs things I don’t believe is sustainable. That seven-year period he has had with England, sometimes that can be too long. A four-year stint with him was probably enough for Japan.”
Thompson “retired” after the 2015 World Cup but was called back for the 2019 tournament by current national coaches Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown. Japan went on to achieve an historic success, beating Ireland and Scotland in the group stage to reach the quarterfinals.
“The expectation in 2019 was for the team to perform well at the World Cup but the only way you could perform well was to do better than the last team. The only way they could be better than the (2015) team was to make the quarterfinals. That’s a pretty difficult thing to do but Jamie and Tony came in changed things, redefined what was going to work and took it to another level.”
Thompson said Japan could surprise again at the next World Cup, though they may be going in “with a target on their backs.
“No-one is going to be caught napping by Japan anymore,” he said. “They’re missing a couple of pieces that are important to them. They need a couple of guys to come back in. There’s not a whole lot of depth there in some key spots but if it falls the right way, they’re definitely knocking on the door of the quarterfinals.”
The 2019 World Cup in Japan introduced many Japanese to rugby for the first time and built support for the sport, and that brushed off on the club competition which for some time afterwards attracted record crowds.
The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted that growth but the new Japan League One debuted last season to general acclaim, winning a new audience at home and around the world. The league features many of the world’s top players and many more are expected to head for Japan after the next World Cup.
“There’s some amazing talent in the league at the moment,” Thompson said. “Some of the stars are there and it’s enjoyable football to play.
“I think that maybe the number of foreigners in the league has grown pretty high and maybe that needs to be looked at to continue the development of Japanese players. But in terms of the product and the enjoyment of playing, was great.”
The new league has strict rules which limit the number of foreign players each team can employ and the way in which they can be used.
Urayasu D-Rocks were relegated from the top flight at the end of last season and Thompson shortly will rejoin a team on a mission to regain some status. His teammates include the former Wallaby Israel Folau.
“We’re all about promotion this year,” he said. “We’re all about getting back to division one where we think we belong and deserve to be.”
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