Rugby’s Eddie Jones — Is Japan ready to take on the World?

Eddie Jones, head coach of the Japan national rugby team

Eddie Jones, head coach of the Japan national rugby team

As the Brave Blossoms enter final preparations for the Rugby World Cup which starts this Friday in London, Beacon Reports spoke to head coach Eddie Jones to find out if the Japan national rugby union team is ready for the big game? Much depends on whether the team has learned to think and act independently on the pitch.

In four years of training, Eddie has encouraged players to coach themselves. They face a complex series of structured and unstructured plays in a serious contest over the ball. But the coach can only give advice once during halftime. So players must become fast, smart and independent decision makers. “I’ve been coaching them to think for themselves, to be their own coach,” says Eddie, who believes it is his job to make his own job as coach redundant.

Eddie has coached teams from all over the world including Australia, England and South Africa. He found that playing styles reflect national cultures. While the Australians are brash, arrogant and inquisitive, the South Africans are aggressive and physical. In contrast, he finds Japanese are obedient regardless of changing circumstances. “If you ask them to do something, they just do it. And they’ll keep doing it regardless of what else happens,” reports Eddie.

“We’ll go into a game with a plan to attack the number 10. They’ll attack the 10 regardless of what is happening out there,” he says. If a space opens that needs filling, he’ll ask at halftime, “Why didn’t you go into the space?” The team will reply, “You told us to attack the 10.” He’ll respond, “But if that space is open, we’ve got to go there.” “Oh really?” they say bewildered. That conversation is held repeatedly.

Eddie thinks the inability of the team to make quick and independent decisions, especially under pressure, is why Japan hasn’t won a big game in test rugby or won the World Cup in 24 years.

That is not to say Japanese players aren’t hardworking and resilient. They are. “But that takes you only so far,” the coach suggests. Their passive, unassertive behavior and their lack of ability to make quick decisions set them back.

Japanese players are also not naturally built for the rough-and-tumble sport. Referring to a match recently played against Fiji, Eddie commented, “In terms of weight and height, if this was a boxing match – it wouldn’t be on.”

Players can’t get away from the physical contest. To win they must be smart. “Smart players are those who make decisions quickly – not necessarily the ones who think a lot,” says Eddie.

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Another issue is that Japanese players train out of duty rather than national pride. He once took the team for preseason camp in Abasahiri, Hokkaido. In the mornings, players would march off to training. It looked to him as if they were going “off to prison” or “to dig roads”. But players don’t improve by being “compliant”, trying to “please the coach”, or by trying “to get through training without getting into trouble”. To rise to the next level, “You’ve got to play sports with some love in your heart,” says Eddie.

Once earlier in the year at training camp, the players didn’t seem ‘quite there’. To change their mind-set he told them they weren’t going to train that day. “It’s off then,” he said. Denied their “duty”, Eddie has never seen the players get so upset. That was exactly the emotional response he sought.

Eddie believes the cause of the problem is the player selection process which rewards obedient and hard workers over meritorious ones. During selection, only the most hardworking obedient boys aged 17 and 18 get picked to play rugby. “Japanese coaches don’t traditionally take on rebels,” he notes. One exception is Yu Tamura who is “a bit of a renegade”. “That is exactly what we want because he is a bit independent,” says Eddie.

Training the Japan team has been a unique and challenging experience. Over his tenure, Eddie built a new team framework, created what he calls the ‘right leadership model’ and has increasingly given players greater responsibility to make their own decisions.

Frustrating as it has been, he’s enjoyed seeing the team grow. Slowly they’ve become more passionate, assertive and adept decision-makers. “But whether we got there quick enough (to win the World Cup), I’m not sure,” he ponders.

Either way the ball is in their hands – Eddie ceases to coach the Japan team when his contract expires after the game.

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