All Blacks aim for three-peat; Japan's big ambitions at RWC

JOHN PYE (AP Sports Writer)
The Associated Press

It was timed for impact, days before the start of the first Rugby World Cup staged in Asia.

A promotional campaign for a movie about Japan's greatest rugby moment - and biggest upset ever at the sport's marquee event - featuring a New Zealand actor (Temuera Morrison) playing an Australian-born coach (Eddie Jones) who was guiding the Japanese squad in England in 2015.

The ''Brighton Miracle'' could harness more interest for the host nation's team when Japan kicks off the World Cup next Friday against Russia. And heighten awareness of some returning characters - albeit in different roles.

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Some of teams are also taking the stage in different roles, too.

By the quirks of the system, Ireland is ranked No. 1, a position the two-time defending champion New Zealand All Blacks are more accustomed to.

The Springboks also threw in a twist, arriving in Japan as the southern hemisphere's Rugby Championship winners after a 16-16 draw with New Zealand. That sets up a blockbuster on the opening weekend with a Pool B clash against the All Blacks.

Jones is in Japan as England coach, hoping he's scripted his team's run to perfection. He took the job after England's group-stage exit four years ago - the first host nation to miss out on qualifying for the knockout rounds - and after orchestrating Japan's 34-32 triumph over two-time champion South Africa at Brighton. That's was the so-called miracle.

Japan hadn't won a game at the previous five World Cups and only had one victory - in 1991 - to its credit, but somehow managed to beat the powerful Springboks, one of three wins that almost got them into the quarterfinals.

The pressure is now on coach Jamie Joseph, a former All Blacks forward, to produce a sequel for Japan in a group that also contains Ireland, Scotland and Samoa.

''We understand the responsibility that goes alongside being the host nation,'' Joseph said. ''I understand that it's crucial for the ongoing development of the game that we play a brand of rugby that is exciting, attractive (and) great to watch.''

He has a plan to upset the Irish or Scotland and is aiming to reach the quarterfinals, and it could be a real spoiler.

While Joseph is conscious of growing the game, Jones has switched his attention to fine-tuning his big-budget English team to fulfill its potential and collect a second World Cup title.

England's 57-15 win over Ireland last month was an indication of how prepared the team is for Japan, having gone through a form slump after winning 17 tests straight from February 2016 to March 2017. Fifth place in the 2018 Six Nations was followed by some disappointments again this season - letting a 31-0 lead slip in a 38-38 draw against Scotland and a 21-13 loss to Wales in Cardiff.

''Are we moving in the right direction? Yes,'' Jones said in the wake of that win over Ireland. ''Are we ready to win the World Cup now? No.''

That is classic Jones lingo meaning not ready, yet.

A wily tactician, Jones steered Australia to an unlikely World Cup final appearance in 2003 - losing the decider to England in extra-time - and was a coaching consultant for South Africa's title win four years later. His work with Japan only enhanced his CV.

He's comfortable in the tournament environment and feels right at home in Japan, thanks to his Japanese mother and his time spent there.

That doesn't mean the road is entirely smooth, though, with England facing three-time finalist France and two-time semifinalist Argentina in Pool C after opening with games against Tonga and the United States.

Only two teams from each group can advance to the quarterfinals, where the likely opponents are two-time champion Australia, Six Nations Grand Slam winner Wales or Fiji, the big potential sleeper in Pool D.

The All Blacks, chasing an unprecedented third consecutive title, and two-time champion Springboks should have too much firepower in Pool B for Italy, Canada and Namibia, with the main question really only about the finishing order.

Steve Hansen, who was assistant coach when New Zealand won on home soil in 2011 and guided the All Blacks to victory as head coach in 2015, is returning along with skipper Kieran Read.

The All Blacks' aura of invincibility has been eroded in the last 12 months with losses to Ireland, South Africa and Australia. But the All Blacks responded to the latest loss with a comprehensive 36-0 win over Australia in Auckland and followed up with a commanding 92-7 win over Tonga before heading to Japan.

After the loss to Ireland in Dublin last October, Hansen said the Irish deserved to be considered the No. 1-ranked team in the world, although that numeric status didn't eventuate until this month. It plays perfectly into Hansen's strategy of making somebody else the favorite.

''This World Cup looks like it's going to be the most fiercely contested tournament yet with a number of teams turning up in Japan thinking they're going to win it,'' Hansen said. ''That's going to create some expectations on them, too. And, with that expectation, pressure.

''That's where we're going to have a small advantage.''

Second place in Pool B will likely meet Ireland in the quarterfinals. After an outstanding 2018 that included that drought-breaking win over the All Blacks and a Six Nations sweep, the Irish appear to have targeting the World Cup at the expense of other trophies this season.

Losses to Wales and England in the Six Nations were followed by the big loss to England last month.

But the recent 19-10 win over Wales in Dublin was the change in momentum coach Joe Schmidt demanded.

''We'd won three of the last five Six Nations, we didn't need another one of those,'' Schmidt said. ''We need a semifinal in this big competition coming up. If decide where your priorities are, you give yourself a better chance.''

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