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Japan aiming high as host of 2019 Rugby World Cup

Japan head coach Jamie Joseph smiles while speaking during a press conference in Tokyo, on Aug. 30, 2019. (AP Photo/Jim Armstrong)

TOKYO (AP) -- Japan head coach Jamie Joseph has set an ambitious goal of reaching the quarterfinals when the Rugby World Cup begins in Japan next month.

Currently ninth in the world rankings after winning its third Pacific Nations title this month, Japan is in Pool A with Ireland, Scotland, Russia and Samoa.

"The team has set a goal of making the top eight for the first time in the history of Japanese rugby," Joseph said on Friday at a media conference in Tokyo, a day after he announced his 31-member squad.

Japan opens the tournament on Sept. 20 against Russia in Tokyo.

Japan won three games at the 2015 tournament under Eddie Jones, including a stunning 34-32 victory over two-time champions South Africa, and narrowly missed out on a place in the quarterfinals.

Joseph said one of his biggest challenges has been managing expectations since that impressive result.

Japan is the first country outside of the traditional rugby strongholds to host the World Cup, which started in 1987 with a tournament held jointly by Australia and New Zealand. The tournament has also been hosted across Britain and Ireland, France and South Africa.

"There are huge expectations now," Joseph said. "We understand the responsibility that goes along with being the host nation and I think we are very well prepared."

This year's Japanese team includes a record 15 descendants of non-Japanese players, including lock Luke Thompson, who could become the sixth-oldest player to have competed at a Rugby World Cup.

The 38-year-old, capped 65 times by Japan, will be 38 years and 157 days old by the time the game's showpiece tournament kicks off.

As in the 2015 World Cup, the squad will be captained by flanker Michael Leitch, like Thompson, another New Zealand-born player.

Other members are prop Keita Inagaki and hooker Shota Horie, as well as scrumhalf Fumiaki Tanaka and flyhalf Yu Tamura.

"Our game is based around speed, skill and structure," added Joseph, a former All Black. "But the key difference this year is we are fit enough now to play that game. We're training at a level of intensity that's 25% higher than our matches -- I think that's our key weapon."

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