Up against perennial champions Japan in their opening match, Korea could not have asked for a tougher start to their Asia Rugby Championship 2017 campaign.
It is 15 years since the Brave Blossoms last lost at this level, 22-20 to Korea in Bangkok, and Korea's New Zealand-born head coach John Walters is under no illusions about the size of the task that awaits them at the Ansan Wa Stadium in Ansan on Saturday.
“We’re obviously underdogs for this match. Thus, we cannot rely on individuals, we must fight, live and die as a team,” Walters said.
Korea go into the round robin competition in an upbeat mood after last November’s tour to South America where they shared the series 1-1 with hosts Chile.
After losing the first match 30-12, Korea responded magnificently to win 38-36 in the second six days later. They scored four tries inside the final 15 minutes to turn the match around, including a hat-trick from winger Han Gyul Park.
Walters has kept faith with many of the players that made the trip to South America but Park is not available. Kim Jung Min captains the side from openside flanker.
“We hope to build on our success from our November test series against Chile,” said Walters. “We have retained the core of that squad so we expect to improve with each game.
“Putting a performance out on the field that we are proud of each week will be our focus for this year’s Asia Rugby Championship.”
As well hoping to snap Japan’s 36-game unbeaten run since the tournament switched to an annual event in 2008, Saturday’s match is seen as another step on the journey towards Rugby World Cup 2019 qualification.
The 2018 champions will meet the Oceania Cup 2017 winner for a place in the RWC 2019 repechage and Walters wants to build momentum going into next year – but without losing sight of the sizeable challenge immediately in front of them.
“It's very important to us that we make progress. We have a long-term plan regarding RWC 2019 which starts this Saturday,” he said.
“We need to learn from our experiences during this year’s ARC in order for us to be in a good position for next year’s competition.
“With this being said, though, we need to approach each game as it comes this year and ensure we nail down the fine details.”
JOSEPH GOES BIG
Last year under interim coach Ryuji Nakatake, Japan fielded their most inexperienced team yet. But they still came away with four wins, scoring 242 points and conceding just 23.
Since then Jamie Joseph has taken over the reins and the former New Zealand and Japan international has picked a 37-man squad including 16 uncapped players.
“It’s a big squad because some of the players are currently injured or reconditioning after a big work load with the Sunwolves starting straight after the Top League,” Joseph explained.
Yutaka Nagare, who captained Suntory to the league and cup double in 2016-17, leads the group, which contains non-travelling members of the Sunwolves, the Junior Japan side that came second in the World Rugby Pacific Challenge last month and players who impressed during the recent Top League season.
Hong Kong have to wait two weeks before beginning their Asia Rugby Championship 2017 campaign away to Japan in Tokyo on 6 May.
Last year, Hong Kong finished second after beating Korea 34-27 in Incheon and 41-15 at home and losing 38-3 (home) and 59-17 (away) to Japan.
Korea, who went down 85-0 (in Yokohama) and 60-3 (in Incheon) to the Brave Blossoms, were third but avoided a promotion/relegation play-off game after Malaysia declined the opportunity to have a shot at reaching the region's highest level.
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