High expectations for Japan’s world cup opener

The Rugby World Cup kicks off on Friday, but will it be plain sailing for hosts Japan? 

They open the tournament against Russia at the Tokyo stadium, in what is expected to be an exciting start, with Japan widely tipped to win this match. 

As this year’s tournament opens, our rankings have Japan placed 11th, against the official ranking of 10th, and interestingly Russia enter as 21st in the world, despite there being only 20 teams in the World Cup.  

Based on the results of the qualifiers, Russia didn’t originally get through to the tournament. However, Romania dropped out after losing points for fielding ineligible players. 

To more accurately reflect the status of the competitors throughout this World Cup, our published rankings table only uses the data of the competing teams. This now ranks Russia in 19th place. 

Japan has consistently ranked 11th  over the last two years, dropping just one position since the end of the last World Cup (2015). Russia, on the other hand, has previously competed in only one World Cup in 2011, and have ranked outside of the top twenty for many years, which left them out of the 2015 tournament altogether.  

The two teams have played against each other just a handful of times over the last 18 years. Until 2010, they were similarly ranked in our model. Over the last decade, Japan has started to make significant progress moving away from Russia in the rankings. This is shown in the chart below, taken from our model, that scores the two teams based on the dominance within tournaments played since 1995. 

Historical Rankings Japan & Russia

Investment and some of the highest salaries in the game have encouraged top players from other nations to play in Japan. For these reasons, along with the fairly flexible eligibility criteria to play for the national team, Japan has improved its prospects enabling them to bridge the tier 2 / tier 1 rankings more successfully than many of their counterparts. 

Confirmation of Eddie Jones joining the team as coach in 2011, added strength to the squad. On arrival he stated:  

‘The first thing we’re going to have to do is win. I want Japan to win and be in the top 10 in the world.’ 1 

Eddie Jones

In 2015, the surprise of the win against South Africa paid tribute to this attitude. Instead of attempting a penalty to draw the game, Japan opted to go for the win with a try and dramatically succeeded in the last minute.  

They are expected to bring this passion back to the opening match this year, leaving Russia as the outright underdogs. However, Russia have not come to Japan to be walked over.  

Their captain, Vasily Artemyev, has started strong with this tweet being posted following an interview with RugbyPass: 

‘We will do our best and try to spoil it for the hosts, but we do realise how strong Japan have been recently’ 

Vasily Artemyev

Everyone expects a bit of bravado going into a World Cup and it’s good for the Russian captain to be providing this. But the reality is that they are still looking for their first World Cup win.  

With Japan having a comfortably higher ranking than Russia, combined with their status as home nation, one would be inclined to expect a straightforward victory for Japan, however the Japanese are no strangers to being on the other end of shock results as demonstrated by their defeat of South Africa in the opening round of World Cup 2015 games.  

Furthermore, Japan only narrowly defeated Russia (32-27) in a highly competitive match played less than a year ago.  

We back our ranking model to manage expectations, but when it comes down to the day, it’s 15 vs 15 and anything can happen.  

This is what makes rugby and the Rugby World Cup such an exciting prospect.