HAMILTON, New Zealand (Reuters) - Japan plan to put a stake in the ground at the rugby World Cup and banish memories of their 145-17 humiliation at the hands of New Zealand in 1995, the teams' only previous clash at the global tournament.
The 'Brave Blossoms' have already won plaudits for their spirited 47-21 loss to France in their first pool match but face the ultimate credibility test when they take on the All Blacks in Hamilton on Friday."I think the game's completely changed since 1995," Japan coach John Kirwan, a former All Black winger, told reporters on Thursday. "Tomorrow evening is about being competitive.
"We've got a goal to be the most improved country at the World Cup and so that means competing last week against France, competing tomorrow night and then winning our last two games."
Kirwan said a repeat of the 1995 result was unfathomable given the improvement in the structure of Japanese rugby since 1995. A stronger domestic league and inclusion in the Pacific Nations Cup over the last five years had also helped.
Japan, ranked 13th in the world, announced themselves as regional contenders with their first Pacific Nations title this year, seeing off the likes of 10th-ranked Samoa, Tonga (12th) and Fiji (15th).
"You can't see that improvement without things happening in the background. So better high performance, good competition and a good domestic competition, those things are in place," said Kirwan.
The coach cited the rise of scrumhalf Atsushi Hiwasa, whose form this year left Australian rugby great and World Cup winner George Gregan on the bench for his club in Japan's top league.
"It's little things like that. And George has passed on a lot of knowledge to Hiwasa, so things like that have really improved our game, so I think we'll see that tomorrow night and further on in the competition," added Kirwan.
"All the guys want to give it their best shot. We want to defend with our hearts on our sleeves and we want to have the ability to hang onto the ball and play some good football.
"The result doesn't matter for us tomorrow night -- and it didn't matter last week as well. It's about playing our style of rugby and then if we can get into a situation to win the football game, then we should take it."
(Editing by Ian Ransom)