Rugby World Cup Countdown - 276 days to go...
January 25, 2007

The cast for next year's Rugby World Cup is almost complete with Japan and Georgia the latest sides to book their place at the global showpiece. Graham Jenkins reports

The cast for next year's Rugby World Cup is almost complete with Japan and Georgia the latest sides to book their place at the global showpiece.

Japan booked their place amongst the world's elite with a thumping 54-0 victory over Korea in the final of the Asian Qualifying Tournament in Hong Kong.

Pic: Georgia's Mamuka Gorgodze celebrates his side's important victory. (Action Images)

As a result Japan will line up in Pool B in France next year alongside Australia, Wales, Fiji and Canada.

As runners-up in the Asian Qualifying competition Korea now progress to the repechage round where they will face Tonga over two legs for one of the two remaining RWC'07 places.

Georgia's qualification followed soon after at the weekend after they drew 11-11 with Portugal in Lisbon.

That result ensured Lelos progressed to France thanks to their 17-3 victory over the Portuguese in Tiblisi a fortnight ago.

Their reward for victory is a place in Pool D at RWC'07 alongside hosts France, Ireland, Argentina and Namibia.

Portugal's hopes of joining them are still alive as they now must play Morocco over two legs for the right to take on Uruguay for the the other repechage qualifying place.

It will be Japan's sixth consecutive appearance in the Rugby World Cup while Georgia will be making their second assault on the game's biggest prize after debuting at RWC'03.

Japan underlined their status as Asia's No.1 team with a commanding performance at the Hong Kong Football Club.

Three tries from captain Daisuke Ohata, whose world record now stands at 69, Hirotoki Onozawa, Mitsugu Yamamoto, Go Aruga, Luatangi Samurai Vatuvei and Phil O'Reilly and seven conversions from Aruga ensured Japan blew away their opponents, who rarely threatened the Japan line.

"I am very pleased for the boys and Japan," said incoming head coach John Kirwan. There was lot of pressure on us before the game but we can now think about the World Cup. The players did their nation proud."

However, Kirwan said that he was hoping the side would continue to improve but for now he was hoping the team would "just enjoy the moment."

"We have succeeded in making the World Cup which is no small feat. But we are going to have to start working really hard after Christmas."

The Japan win was based on a solid performance from the forwards, who put their opponents under pressure all night, and a much improved showing from the backs.

But it was the defensive effort that most pleased general manager/acting head coach Osamu Ota.

"The zero was more important that the 54. But I thought the forwards and backs combined really well together. In the second half that was the new Japan style that we are trying to get. I can now hand the team over to Kirwan."

Meanwhile the tour season came to an end in Europe at the weekend with mixed results and performances for the world's leading nations.

Defeat for England at the hands of South Africa, their eighth defeat in nine games, increased the pressure on coach Andy Robinson and the Rugby Football Union's top brass.

Reports suggest time has run out for Robinson with sweeping changes rumoured as the world champions desperately seek some sort of form with the defence of their crown looming large.

They'll next take to the field at the RBS Six Nations where Ireland are likely to start as favourites after a superb autumn campaign that included victories over southern hemisphere giants Australia and South Africa.

The Wallabies and Springboks find themselves with plenty of work to do if they are to usurp their Tri Nations rivals as the pre-RWC favourites.

Hosts France got their preparations back on track after two defeats at the hands of New Zealand with a narrow victory over the improving Argentina.

However coach Bernard Laporte is far from happy and singled out his side's 'mental fragility' following the win.

Europe's other leading nations failed to set the rugby world alight and instead it is Argentina who have emerged as likely star performers come this time next year.

Victories over England and Italy underlined they're growing prominence and by pushing France all the way at the Stade de France in their last encounter they signalled a warning to the sport's biggest names.

But they, and the rest of the Rugy World Cup hopefuls are still playing catch up with New Zealand.

Graham Henry's side continue to set the standard after sweeping aside England and Wales in addition to their two victories over Les Bleus.

Fresh hope wil be high on the respective wish lists this festive season for those trying desperately to keep pace with the all-conquering All Blacks.

RWC'07 Pools:

Pool A: England, South Africa, Samoa, USA, Repechage 2*
Pool B: Australia, Wales, Fiji, Canada, Japan
Pool C: New Zealand, Scotland, Italy, Romania, Repechage 1*
Pool D: France, Ireland, Argentina, Namibia, Georgia

*Repechage 1 will be the winner of the Uruguay v Morocco/Portugal
*Repechage 2 will be the winner of Korea v Tonga

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