Originally published July 17, 2013
He guided Australia to the World Cup final in 2003 and was the technical adviser for South Africa when they lifted the trophy four years later, yet speaking to Eddie Jones you get the impression that helping to turn Japan into a respectable rugby playing nation would mean more to him than anything else he has achieved in the game.
It certainly won’t be easy. Japan, who are set to host the tournament in 2019, haven’t won a game at the World Cup since 1991 and have, at times, been embarrassed against some of the top-tier sides. While they are unlikely to be challenging the likes of New Zealand or his native Australia any time soon, Jones is determined to at least give his team a competitive edge.
“I think if this team doesn’t start improving now it never will,” says Jones when we meet after training in mid-May. “I had my first stint here in 1996 [as assistant coach] and I felt that Japan had a lot of potential back then, but the fact is that they haven’t got any better since and this is reflected in the World Cup results. We need to start developing the game at grass-roots level and encouraging more kids to play, though this will only happen if we start winning games against proper opposition. If we don’t there is a chance that the game here could go back to being just a university sport.”
Since taking over as national team coach in 2012, Jones, whose mother is Japanese, has pulled no punches in his assessment of the state of the game in this country. Back in October he vented his fury at Japan’s rugby infrastructure being stuck in a time warp, whilst he has also had plenty to say about the lack of aggression amongst some players here and the shortage of first class coaches in the country. Yet despite this he is actually quite positive about the future, believing progress is slowly but surely being made.
“At the end of the day our players aren’t aggressive enough and perhaps are too polite, but that is part of their education”
“It’s starting to come,” says Jones. “Physically the players have developed enormously, with some having increased their body weight by 3-4kg. Their mindset is also gradually changing. Previously they only thought about how to do well at a domestic level, now they are thinking more about the international game.
“At the end of the day our players aren’t aggressive enough and perhaps are too polite, but that is part of their education. We can’t change that, what we can do is develop our own style of play and try to turn our weaknesses into strengths. We need to move and pass quicker than our opponents, for example we make more passes than any other team in the world, around 220 a game, I think the All Blacks are second with around 175.
“It is about creating our own style of play and making sure everyone believes in it. To achieve this we are actively trying to pick more Japanese players. Of course we still need some foreigners [a number are allowed under international rules based on residency] as they provide the muscle, but we are not alone on that front, I mean the Kiwis would be pretty skinny without their Samoans, Tongans and Fijians! What I want is a team built around Japanese players and our foreign contingent to supplement that by adding to the power of the side.”
In his year and a half at the helm Jones has stamped his own authority on the squad and while it is perhaps too early to judge, things seem to be moving in the right direction: the side were unbeaten in six when we meet. They strolled to the Asian Five Nations title earlier this year, scoring a ridiculous 316 points in four games that were more like training sessions than international matches. Far more impressive were their victories over Romania – their first ever away win against a European side – and Georgia last November.
Next up is Wales, an entirely different proposition, who are coming to Japan for a two Test match series in June (at the Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium on the 15th at 2pm). The World Cup semi-finalists in 2011 and current Six Nations champions will be without the majority of their top players, most of whom are away with the British and Irish Lions, yet they represent a massive step up in class.
“They’ve still got their captain, Bradley Davies, who has 30-odd caps, and others who have performed in the Six Nations. On top of that, some of their young players coming through are great prospects. Their U-20 side reached the Junior World Championship semi final last year, so it certainly isn’t going to be easy. That said I think we have a chance. They will have to adjust to the climate, time difference etc, (so) we can hopefully catch them on the hop, playing the kind of rugby they have never seen before.”
Jones has turned to Fabio Ongaro (80 caps for Italy) and Marc Dal Maso (33 caps for France) to provide specialist assistance in scrum coaching for what should be two intense, physical battles against the Welsh, while Steve Borthwick, who Jones will know well from Saracens, will help with their line-out strategy.
Even more important is the return to the squad of Super 15 players Fumiaki Tanaka, a scrum-half with the Highlanders, Shota Horie, a Melbourne Rebels hooker and Michael Leitch, a flanker with the Chiefs. Playing at a considerably higher level in a league with the top teams from South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, all three are hugely important players for the national team, known as the Brave Blossoms, and will have to be on top of their game to stand up to the Welsh.
“It is not just the fact that they are our best players, it is everything else they bring. They think, behave and eat differently from the rest of the squad. I was speaking to some Japanese football coaches and they were telling me that seven years ago the national team would go abroad and all the players would want Japanese food like katsu-don or teriyaki burgers; now because so many of them are plying their trade abroad their mindset is different and I think these three boys can have a similar influence on the rest of our squad.”
The Super 15 players have also helped to raise the profile of the sport in this country. When Tanaka signed for the Highlanders, in New Zealand, he attracted more press attention than many of the World Cup winners in their squad. There were also documentaries about him on NHK and WOWOW. Not quite the fanfare afforded to Shinji Kagawa when he joined Man Utd or for Yu Darvish when he signed for the Texas Rangers, but significant nonetheless.
Jones believes that there are another couple of players in his current squad capable of making the step up to Super 15’s rugby and by the time the 2015 World Cup starts in England there could be as many as eight or nine playing there. The Tests against Wales will provide a good opportunity for a number of individuals to put themselves in the shop window, particularly youngsters like Keisuke Uchida, Yoshikazu Fujita, Kenki Fukuoka and Ryoto Nakamura (the latter man pictured on our cover).
The four men, who are all still at university, are considered the top prospects in the country. Coming up against such strong opposition will be a completely new experience for them and Jones will no doubt be keen to see whether they can make the step up or not. If they can it will be a massive shot in the arm for Japan, a country desperate to add to its sole victory at a World Cup, against Zimbabwe in 1991.
Since that win in Belfast the team has shown some promise, with two draws against Canada, but has ultimately come up short. There can be no more excuses in England in 2015, though. They don’t want to be hosting the tournament in 2019 with just one World Cup win under their belt. A positive performance against Wales or Scotland, who they play in November, will give the players a lot of confidence as they continue to prepare for the third biggest sporting event in the world.
Eddie Jones on…
his World Cup experiences:
I have some great memories from the tournament, such as winning it with South Africa in 2007 and beating New Zealand as Australia coach in the semi-final in 2003. The worst was of course Jonny’s drop goal (Jonny Wilkinson’s last minute kick gave England a dramatic victory against Australia in the 2003 final). That felt like a car-wreck.
Japan’s goals for 2015:
We want to win every game. You have to go in with that attitude. If you say your aim is to win two, then you are saying you will lose two. That is a real negative way to kick things off. Ultimately when the tournament is over I want this team to be respected, with people saying the team have enough about them to trouble any team in the world.
the likely winner in 2015:
I don’t think you can look past three teams: New Zealand, Australia and England. New Zealand and Australia are so powerful right now while England have a really talented pool of players to choose from. My only concern for the English would be, can they strike a balance between optimism and their famous arrogance? After they beat the Kiwis we heard how they were going to do this and that, then Wales brought them back down to earth with a bump in the Six Nations.
Images courtesy of the JRFU