The final score was 47-21 to France, but it was flattering. Three tries came in the final ten minutes, when France’s class finally showed. Before that, we all believed Japan would pull off the upset win.
I was in Japan in 2010, interviewing rugby players and coaches. Most notably George Gregan, Eddie Jones, and, then national coach, John Kirwan.
Kirwan was preparing for the 2011 World Cup by saying they planned to win every game in their pool except against the All Blacks. They beat Tonga in the Pacific Nations Cup, and Canada so he figured they could do it again. Then he said they would shock France.
Sadly none of that came to pass as Japan bowed out of that year’s cup with no wins.
Eddie Jones, at that time, was the coach of the Suntory Supergoliaths, while George Gregan was his star player. He blunted refuted my claim that he would want to be the next Japanese head coach (which made me instantly believe the opposite). Here’s what I wrote about him back then:
“One of [the Japanese players] biggest strengths is following a gameplan. You set them up before hand and they will follow it to the death.” The problem sadly, as Jones sees it, is the training the players receive at high school and even university.
The university level games are very popular, and like in American Football, can draw much larger and enthusiastic crowds than the professional game. Generally though, rugby is much less popular in Japan than baseball and football (soccer). So coaching is an issue, and Jones explained why.
“Here’s what every team does: Inside their own 22 they kick; between the 22s it’s a running game with little passing; inside the opposition 22 it’s pick and go. And that’s it, every team.” But Jones is trying to change that.
“I put in place a new gameplan this year and made the boys use it during our pre-season games. Part of it was we were going to run it out of the 22. So what happens after the kick-off of the first regular season game? We catch it inside the 22 and we kick it. So it’s going to take some time to get rid of those ingrained thought processes.
Jones has real plans to change Japanese rugby and he believes that the Japanese can be a real threat on the international scene. They have the talent they just need the right training.
Seems he was right.