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March 25, 2017 18:35

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16:43 17 March 2017

Rugby: Joseph developing talent but not at expense of player welfare

By Rich Freeman
TOKYO, March 17, Kyodo

With four of Japan men's squads currently in four different continents, head coach Jamie Joseph is working hard on developing the depth of players to make the Brave Blossoms a truly competitive team.

But he also knows that the current structure of Japanese rugby does not help when it comes to player welfare.

Nonstop rugby at high school, university and Top League level means the top players in Japan rarely get more than a week away from the sport, if that, in a year.

And with the Sunwolves getting just two weeks preparation before playing in the most grueling tournament in rugby, it is no wonder the current injury list of the Super Rugby side is almost as big as the number of players available to play.

"That is one of the pitfalls of the competition structure we have," Joseph said this week after a training session for the National Development Squad at Tatsumi Rugby Ground. "It's no one's fault, it's just the way it is. The players play too much rugby and there is no reconditioning or rest."

The NDS is currently composed of 34 players, including 16 of the Sunwolves' walking wounded, and will form the basis -- along with the Sunwolves players currently in South Africa and the Junior Japan squad now in Fiji -- of the group to play the Asia Rugby Championship in April and May against South Korea and Hong Kong. The fourth Japanese side abroad is the high school select side, which is in Europe.

"The Sunwolves players that are here have been given time away from rugby, so this is their preseason," explained Joseph.

"With the NDS, the Sunwolves and Junior Japan we have about 70 players. The Sunwolves will have 27 players on tour and obviously there will be some injuries and some players resting but that still gives us plenty of players," for the ARC, which kicks off April 22 in Incheon, South Korea.

Joseph said the ultimate target would be picking the best 23 from that group of 70 to take on Ireland on June 17 and 24.

"We owe it to the players as coaches to get them in the best condition and be the best player for every team they play for," Joseph said.

One player benefiting from Joseph's approach is Kotaro Matsushima.

Contracted to the Sunwolves, Matsushima hasn't played since helping Suntory Sungoliath win the All-Japan Championship on Jan. 29.

"My body was getting tired and I had a problem with my hamstring," the 24-year-old told Kyodo News when asked why he had been sent home from the Sunwolves' two-week training camp in February.

Encouraged by Joseph, Matsushima headed overseas for a week and then relaxed in Tokyo for another week "with a few beers."

When asked when the last time he had taken time away from rugby was, the Toin Gakuen High School graduate said, "I'm not sure. I think I had a week away last year. It's tough, if you are a top player you are expected to play every single game. It's really hard both physically and mentally."

Having had the chance to refresh himself, Matsushima said he was hoping to be available for the Sunwolves game against the Bulls in Tokyo on April 9.

Joseph, meanwhile, said he would be slowly raising the intensity for the players under his care as the test season approaches, but player welfare would come first as always.

"If we do too much it leads to injuries and if we do too little we won't be ready. It's important though that we see how they use their skills under pressure and how they operate when tired. We want to get them to look over the cliff but not push them over."

==Kyodo

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