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It was the most electrifying, improbable moment of last year’s Rugby World Cup. Four minutes into injury time at the end of the match, and Japan, rated as 100-1 outsiders, were within three points of South Africa, a team of rugby giants in every sense.
For five desperate minutes Japan had piled on the pressure. Twice they turned down chances to kick for a draw, itself a result to amaze world rugby — but now they were trapped in the right corner and it looked like the end. Then somehow, the ball came back across the field of play, stretching the defence of South Africa, and Japan’s New Zealand-born wing Karne Hesketh dived into the left corner to seal a dazzling 34-32 victory.
The man behind the Japanese triumph of training, tactics and discipline was Australian coach Eddie Jones. Japan’s success has since led to his appointment as England’s new head coach. With England hoping Jones will turn their fortunes around after what for them was a disastrous tournament, his time in Japan gives a sense of what Jones will — and will not — bring to his new team.
“What Eddie did is extremely simple,” says Kensuke Iwabuchi, general manager of the Japan team and Jones’s partner in its rise. “He didn’t do anything complicated. He just got the team together a lot and they trained a lot.”
The Japan Rugby Football Union, like its England counterpart, has its vested interests and men in blazers. Yet Jones pushed for more resources and 130 days of training a year. The power of England’s professional clubs, however, will make it hard for Jones to secure as much time for England’s squad.
Iwabuchi compares the Japan team under Jones with the ferociously well-trained “Witches of the Orient” who won the women’s volleyball gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964.
“But there’s a difference between then and now,” he adds. “With sports science, nutrition and data, you have to convince the players that if you don’t do the right kind of training, you can’t win.”
The rigorous methods used by Jones rejected the stereotype that Japanese players were not big enough for the international game. He demanded improvements in strength and stamina alike. That meant four training sessions a day starting at 5am, which players describe as the toughest of their lives.
Jones monitored the players’ training and fitness with sophisticated electronic methods and software. The result was that players shed 5 per cent of body fat, even as their strength increased.
Suddenly, Japan could compete in the scrum for a full 80 minutes with such supremely physical teams as South Africa. “We realised we were ahead in fitness and physicality,” says fullback Ayumu Goromaru.
Jones even found a way to address calls for a “Japanese” style of rugby, bringing mixed martial arts expert Tsuyoshi Kohsaka into his training camps. Japan’s players learned to stay low in contact, making it hard for burlier opponents to bring their size to bear.
That was the positive side. Several people involved in Japan’s campaign, meanwhile, said Jones would also rebuke staff and players harshly to the point where even during the tournament tensions in the team ran high.
His approach did not stop short of publicly criticising officials and telling the corporate teams that employ Japan’s top players to adopt his methods of physical training. “In Japan, people follow the man in charge, so the national team put up with Eddie Jones for four years,” says a person close to the JRFU.
Officials at the organisation question whether England will give their coach nearly as much time.
Japan will host the next Rugby World Cup in 2019 and last year’s performance by the “Brave Blossoms”, as they are locally known, has revived flagging domestic interest in the game. Goromaru is a national hero. Jones has left a huge positive legacy and JRFU officials hope he will continue in the same vein in his new position.
“If Eddie’s England come to the World Cup in 2019, it’ll really fire things up,” says a senior JRFU official. Given Jones’s penchant for careful preparation, England are expected to come to Japan for warm-up games. Stadiums “will be overflowing”, says the official.
Whether Japan will be as competitive in 2019 depends on who is appointed to succeed Jones. A decision is expected soon. The culture of rugby in Japan is about sacrifice for the team but any future squad would need to maintain the physicality and professionalism instilled during the Jones era.
As one of the minor teams at the 2015 World Cup, Japan enjoyed only three days rest after playing South Africa and suffered a bad defeat in their next game against Scotland.
A failure to push for bonus points in their victories over the US and Samoa led to first round elimination. If they make it to the quarter-finals in 2019, Japan will have the intensity of Jones to thank — and so much the better if they then meet England.