Japan’s rugby presence was finally taken note of in the world stage when they produced a miracle at the Brighton Community Stadium in Sussex, England. The Asian giants have been over the years terribly exposed for lack of muscle power at the IRB show piece in rugby union, the World Cup. This has been the story with the Cherry Blossoms, also known as the bashing boys in the global rugby world.
They’ve always made the small rugby nation watch in awe with their stepping and running skills. However the trail they have left behind in 15-a-side rugby hasn’t attracted many followers. Other Asian nations have preferred to channel their energies and finances in pursuing the sevens version of rugby union because it makes sense for the small made players of Asia to try something where they can win.
What would Japan’s World Cup rugby miracle mean to Asia? Will this feat give hope to the other heavy weights in the Asian continent like South Korea, Hong Kong or even Kazakhstan? Is this a fluke? Should we believe in miracles all the time or is it wise to look for a pattern worth following in Japanese rugby that other Asian nations can benefit from? These are questions which other Asian rugby playing nations should ask themselves as the 2015 Rugby World Cup gathers momentum.
Japan has a rich rugby history behind them and a willing set of men to step on the world rugby stage. But in the past, it seemed they were never really prepared for the challenges that a world cup throws at minnows. The man who got the calculations right for Japan was none other than Eddie Jones who coached Australia to a final birth at the 2003 edition of the Rugby World Cup.
Rugby reports reveal that he had worked with the Japanese players for the past two years and also studied the opposition intensely. This is an era where playing to expose the weaknesses of the opposition is the mantra that works as opposed to playing within ones strengths.
But Jones, as opposed to former coach Sir John Kirwan, believed that Japan’s game plan should also include playing running rugby. When Japan’s steppers started running and punching holes in the opposition’s defence, the big boys from South Africa and their coach Heyneke Meyer might have wondered whether the slap bang style of rugby had suddenly become inadequate.
Rugby is a complicated sport at present. Apart from coaches, there are fitness trainers, statisticians, nutritionists, masseurs and doctors working with rugby teams in this present era. The ambitious coaches never take their thinking caps off and are always working on their laptops, searching for information that leaves them with an edge. When an intelligent coach, who is obsessed with constant improvement, takes over the side he gets the players to think. All this urges well for those who think that there are smart ways of playing rugby as opposed to using brute force alone.
When one looks deep into Japanese rugby, the rich history in domestic rugby can’t be ignored. Japan’s rugby started in 1866 and the number of clubs has grown to 3631, which has helped increase their player base to over 12,000. No coach can produce results from nothing. History dotted with some kind of achievements offers that platform to plan big and dream big. We are going on a wrong line of thinking if we only consider stats of a team that was 349/1 odds against South Africa and hadn’t won a world cup game in 24 years. It’s just that they had it in them and someone had to come and tune the antenna right so that everyone started seeing the big picture in rugby very clearly.
Jones reduced the number of expats in the side and encouraged Japan to play their own brand of rugby. In short term this works, but when you start adopting a different style, alien to what all others are doing, it can leave you isolated. This is probably what has happened to most of the Asian rugby teams in the world rugby scene. When you probe the weaknesses of the opposition and find it hard to spot much, then you know that you have to follow the trends. All big nations in rugby are moving in the directions which underscores the words; bigger, faster and stronger. There is no future for nations which want to be removed from this theory. Rugby is stereo type right now and doesn’t allow nations to have much of style. Whatever the strategies adopted one factor that scores heavily in the final outcome is fitness. When skills are equal fitness wins!
Fifteen-a-side rugby is virtually dead in Asia. The virtually empty stadiums at matches show this as opposed to the sevens versions that thrives in the Asian arena. Japan’s recent win at the World Cup is akin to a best-selling debut novel by a promising rookie author. In the writing business an author’s first novel must be followed quickly by a second that promises better stuff than the first. Then only is a future guaranteed. At the time of writing Japan is preparing for their second game which is against Scotland. The Cherry Blossoms have to do better than they did against South Africa in the next couple of rugby matches. By the time this edition goes to print the outcome of the Japan-Scotland match is only of academic interest. What matters to rugby scribes and the Asian rugby family is whether Japan realizes its world cup ambitions; reach the quarter-finals and emerge as the team of the tournament.
As they continue to play in this rugby show piece we shall chant the name ‘Nippon’ and bash our drums in their support. David like Japan has slung a stone at Goliath and hit hard. One Goliath has fallen, but there are many more like them who will surface in this tournament. Japan has to stand strong; they have, they must and they will.