Four more Tests will close out the Wallabies’ 2021 international season, and it all kicks off on Saturday when they face Japan in the nation’s southern city of Oita.
Following the match with the Brave Blossoms, the Wallabies head to the UK for Tests against Scotland, England and Wales on consecutive weekends from November 8.
The Showa Denko Dome in Oita, on Japan’s southern island of Kyushu, is a familiar venue for the Wallabies, but not for happy reasons: It was the venue their 2019 Rugby World Cup campaign ended, the team trounced 40 points to 16 at the hands of England.
But alarmingly, the clash this Saturday represents just the sixth time the two countries have met since 1975.
The Brave Blossoms have never beaten Australia.
Back in 1975, the Wallabies won 37-7 at the Sydney Cricket Ground, before backing up with a 50-25 win a fortnight later at Ballymore in Brisbane. But they didn’t meet again until the inaugural World Cup in 1987, with the Wallabies winning 42-23 at Concord Oval in Sydney.
And it would be another 20 years before the next clash, in which the Wallabies enjoyed a massive 91-3 win in Lyon in France during the 2007 World Cup, a month before being bundled out in the quarter-final.
The most recent match was a 63-30 win for Australia at the Yokohama International Stadium, the venue for the 2019 RWC final and semi-finals.
This was the third of four straight wins the Wallabies posted toward the end of the 2017 season, a feat they have only just equalled again in their last four matches.
After beating Argentina 37-20 in the final match of The Rugby Championship in 2017, the Wallabies beat New Zealand 23-18 in Brisbane in the final, standalone Bledisloe Cup Test.
A fortnight later they were in Yokohama, and with fly-half Bernard Foley sick and Quade Cooper not used at all through The Rugby Championship, Michael Cheika handed Reece Hodge his first ever start in the number 10 jersey.
Hodge kicked nine from nine from the kicking tee, and outside centre Tevita Kuridrani scored three tries as the Wallabies ran away with a convincing win.
Since 2017, however, there has been significant change in the Japanese game. They are nothing like the easybeats they used to be, having to qualify for World Cups and then copping horrendous thrashings when they did.
After beating South Africa in the 2015 RWC in England — “The Brighton Miracle” as it became known, prompting a movie of the same name – Japan repeated the feat as the host of the 2019 RWC, beating Ireland and Scotland to qualify top of their pool and progress to the quarter-finals for the first time.
Current coach Jamie Joseph has been at the helm since 2016 and has worked hard to build the depth of the national squad, through increased co-operation with domestic professional clubs run by major corporations, and by qualifying uncapped expats from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and the Pacific Islands.
Japan had Super Rugby representation for four and a half seasons too, with the Sunwolves playing from 2016 through to their COVID-forced disbandment when the competition was suspended in March 2020.
Since the 2019 RWC, and particularly since the Sunwolves were removed from Super Rugby, Japan’s admission into The Rugby Championship has been a widely held goal of governing body SANZAAR, with an expansion of the competition in 2024 an oft-reported time frame.
“In order to take the discussions [about Japan] into a decision, [the SANZAAR nations] have a commitment to play the Japanese on a more frequent basis and use that over the next couple of years as a performance metric,” Rugby Australia and former SANZAAR CEO Andy Marinos said in an interview in June this year.
The links with Japan have been steadily growing in recent years, and this weekend’s Test Match is very much the next step in strengthening those ties.
All five Australian Super Rugby sides have relationships or partnerships of varying formality with Japanese professional sides, and sabbatical deals – such as Michael Hooper’s stint with Toyota Verblitz earlier this year – are RA’s favoured method for rewarding long-serving players.
And just in this year’s Rugby Championship, the Wallabies have used those relationships for their tremendous benefit, seeking agreement from Japanese clubs to have Quade Cooper, Samu Kerevi, and Sean McMahon made available to play for their country again.
Though Kerevi will miss the Japan Test, both he and Cooper in particular have been instrumental in the Wallabies’ return to form and second-place finish in the tournament.
It’s entirely likely that Rugby Australia will continue to foster these relationships with the Japanese national union by scheduling more fixtures like this weekend’s in future seasons, where the Wallabies will face the Brave Blossoms en route to the traditional end of year Tests in Europe.
There is equally no doubt that both Rugby Australia and New Zealand Rugby see significant commercial gains to be cultivated from Japan and the broader Asian region.
In future seasons, we could see crossover competitions where the best Australian and New Zealand sides meet the best sides from Japan’s Top League competition, or their mooted new professional competition.
All this is worth bearing in mind when the Wallabies and Brave Blossoms take to the field in Oita on Saturday afternoon. There will be much more at stake than just a fifth straight win from the Wallabies, or an impressive first showing on home soil since 2019 for the locals.
Because this game quite likely represents the next significant steps for professional rugby in both countries.