Japan beat Russia 30-10 in the 2019 Rugby World Cup. How did the team rise to prominence? Prior to 2015, Japan had not won any substantial game in 24 years. With coaching provided by Eddie Jones, Japan then beat South Africa in the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
Back then, I talked to former head coach Eddie Jones in the hours before he and the Japan team departed for England to beat the two-time world rugby champions.
How, in over four years of training, did Jones turn around the fortunes of the Japan national rugby team? Here’s how:
Interview transcript follows…
Jones: I’ve been lucky enough to coach in Australia, England and South Africa. I’ve done stints in Europe and the Pacific Islands. The Japanese players are completely unique. They’re not like anywhere else in the world. Whenever you coach rugby in another country it’s always reflective of the society in some way. For instance, the South Africans are very aggressive and physical people. It’s part of the fabric of their society. Australians tend to be brash and arrogant and inquisitive. If you asked them to do something they say, “Why?”
The difference with Japanese players is that if you asked them to do something, they just do it. And they keep doing it regardless of what else happens.
We’ll go in with a game plan: We want to attack their number 10. We’ll do that, regardless of what happens out here (on the field). If there is space (on the field which opens up), we still won’t to go there. I’ll say at halftime, “Why didn’t you go to the space.” And they’ll say, “You told us to attack the 10.” But if that space is open, we’ve got to go there. “Oh really?” is how they respond. That’s the conversation we repeatedly have.
It’s all part of how their educated. They’re educated to be obedient. That’s a great thing in terms of compliance, but not a great thing in a decision making game. Rugby’s probably the most complex ball sporting game. You’ve got serious contest for the ball all the time, either in a structured situation or unstructured situation which requires great decision-making.
The Japanese players are not educated to be decision-makers. They are educated to be obedient. But their great strength—and more so than probably in any other country—is their resilience. They have a fantastic capacity for hard work. They have a fantastic capacity to stick at things for long periods of time. But the downside is their lack of assertiveness. They want to please the coach.
So you have team meetings. Very rarely do players speak up because of the fact they don’t want to be seen as being anything but compliant with what’s going on. Therefore, running meetings in Japan is completely different than in other countries because you have to have meetings before the meeting and meetings after the meetings to make sure that you actually got compliance. Japanese players will have a passive compliance, but they won’t actually do it with their heart. They will do what you say, but they won’t do it with their hearts, so you have to have meetings before the meetings and meetings after the meeting to make sure that you get that real buy-in from the players.
It’s quite a unique situation. Coaches that come to Japan think it’s the best place in the world because you’ve got players who work hard and do as you say. But that only takes you only so far. One of the reasons Japan has never won a test match — never won a big game in test rugby or won the World Cup for 24 years I think is that reason. They can’t make decisions and definitely can’t make decisions under pressure.
For the last four years I’ve had with Japan, the first year I coached very traditionally. I had to create a base. But the second, third and fourth year we’ve increasingly given more responsibility to the players. And they’re changing slowly. They’re still having days when they just want to be obedient and do what you asked them to do.
Now we’re getting much greater thought process from the players. They’re thinking about what they should do, coming up with suggestions on how they can do things better. It’s been a real interesting process. It’s taken four years to get there. You’ve got to have a process to put this in place.
If you look at Japan historically since WWII (my father was in the occupation force here after World War II) the country was a mess. They’ve got amazing capacity to do things. What I’m saying is that players are starting to break the shell of being passive and obedient. They are now starting to be assertive. Over the last two weeks at least three players have come up to me and request to play. They asked, “Could you please pick me this week, I really want to play.” I actually had one player that I picked come and say, “No, I can’t play. My ankle isn’t good enough.” For Japanese players to do that, that’s quite amazing.
I’ve always found the most successful teams I’ve had…. by your fourth year, your job as a coach is to make your job redundant. I watch a little bit of NFL. I watch the Patriots sometimes. I bet Tom Brady runs the team. I’m sure the coach does a lot, but that’s a very self-functioning team. Most of the champion teams in the world are. The coach puts the framework in place and then he creates the right leadership model for that team and then the players run it. Because once you’re on the field players have got to run it.
Particularly in rugby where we don’t have any interventions—so the game goes for two periods of 40 minutes—we see the players once at halftime during the game. So it’s very much up to the players to find a way. Every time you play a game of rugby, when you get the ball, what’s in front of you? The picture is different all the time. But you’re right, the job as a head coach is to make yourself redundant.
The game of Rugby only went professional in 1996. The first year it went professional, I had (already) done a little bit of part-time work in Japan. Then Tokai University offered me a full-time job. I was a principal in a high school in Australia. But I had this dream of being a professional coach, so I came to Japan. My first experience was amazing.
I got to Tokai University. They had a really weak first division team. In the first two weeks, the captain runs everything. I said to the kantoku (supervisor), “You’ve employed me to be the head coach but the captain does everything. What’s going on?” He said, “That’s how we do things in Japan.” So I said, “What do you want a coach for then?”
That’s the ridiculous side of player leadership. Players aren’t coaches. Coaches are there to make players do what they don’t want to do. That’s their job. You need players to be leaders, but at university the captain runs everything. So the players don’t get coached. That was my first time learning about Japanese culture. Next, I went in and said, “Here’s my resignation letter. Either I become the coach or I go.” The next day, I ran things.
Solomon: As you described them, the players sound like typical Japanese ‘salarymen’. I meet with independently thinking Japanese entrepreneurs all the time who have never lived overseas. Call them misfits or whatever. It seems to me that independently minded people are found equally distributed around the world. Could the selection process for team members in Japan be improved?
Jones: I agree 100%. Just yesterday morning I met with the coaching director of the Japanese rugby union. He’s now the head coach of the 20 (year olds). I said, “One of the things you’ve got to sort out in Japan is that you pick national teams from 17, 18 and 20 (year olds). You’ll find the bulk of those players will go on to become national team players because they get the better coaching and better exposure to international sport. Once you’re selected into those teams it is very hard to get out.
The selection process is all about picking the most obedient 17 and 18 year old boys —the ones that are going to work hard, say “yes” and do the right thing. They tend to stray away from those guys that are a bit more liberal thinking, do their own thing and break the mold. Japanese sport doesn’t cope with those players.
Solomon: What have you done to attract better players?
Jones: I’ve spoken to those coaches to encourage them to change their selection process. We’ve picked players that wouldn’t have been picked normally. We’ve got a boy “(Yu) Tamura” from Meiji University. He is a bit of a renegade. But he is exactly what we want because he is a bit independent. But traditionally Japanese coaches stray away from that. I coached in Santori before I came here. It was the same. Before I took over they always picked the guys who worked hard and do the right things, (thinking) “Yea, he deserves a chance”— rather than someone who is a bit more independent.
You must remember Japan had to regenerate itself after World War II. It was based on military discipline. It was based on working hard, keep doing the right thing and you’ll get rewards. It wasn’t about being creative and being assertive.
Sports (played well) is always a combination of hard work, being creative and finding different ways to do things. (But) Japanese sports is all about hard work and discipline and is nothing about being creative to find ways to do things (better). Japanese players are like factory workers.
All the teams go up to Abashiri in Hokkaido for a preseason camp. That should be one of the most fun times you have. You’re in a nice spot. We stay at this hotel and I watch these players every morning. They get out of the hotel and walk through training like death warmed up. They just see training as work. The whole thing about sports recreation is to re-create. It means to have enjoyment. (But) you’ve got to play sports with some love in your heart.
If you play just as a duty, you never get 100% passion or commitment in how you play. That’s why I’ve seen Japanese teams not do well at the World Cup. World Cups are about nationalism. It’s like the Olympics. They’re just normal sports events, but you’ve got a chance to do something for your country. That’s where national pride comes in. If you’re doing it out of duty, you don’t get that rise to the next level.
Japanese players want to train to please you. At a previous camp this year I could see the players weren’t quite there. I said, “Boys, you aren’t going to train today. It’s off. You’re not training.” I’ve never seen players so upset. They were really upset. I had delegations of players coming to me saying, “You’ve got to let us train. We must train.” I said, no you’re not training. They were so upset and angry.
I got the emotional result I wanted. But the reason that they were angry was that they felt that they weren’t fulfilling their duty. Training is about improvement. Every time you go to training it’s a chance to improve. It’s not about duty. It’s a chance to improve. But it is still (like that) for the players. Training to me is a privilege. Playing a game for your country is an absolute privilege. And you’ve got to see it like that.
Slowly we’re getting a better response. It’s very difficult.
For Japan to keep going in international rugby and be further successful, the whole development process has to change. Again, it goes back into that training attitude. There has to be training about being specialized. Because Japanese, like in any business, you’ve got a have a competitive edge. If you can’t be as big and strong (as the competition), then you’ve got to be faster and more skillful. It needs to change at an early age though.
Rugby is the most physical game in the world. So you never get away from physical contest. But there’s ways to win, but you’ve got to be smart and you’ve got to be quick. Smart players are players that make decisions quickly—not necessarily those that think a lot. They make decisions quickly. The whole structure of Japanese rugby sets them out to be dull, not bright.
Solomon: Have you accomplished over the past four years what you’ve wanted to accomplish?
Jones: When you create a team, the dynamics of the team never (stay) the same. From one day to another it changes. At the moment our team is in really good fiddle. We have one senior guy: If last night he has a fight with his girlfriend or his wife and comes in today and is not quite there, then the dynamics of the team can change. It’s one of the more interesting things about coaching. You have this living organism that keeps on changing all the time.
I think generally speaking we’re going in the right direction. It’s a matter of whether we’re moving quickly enough. The players are more assertive. They’re more adept at making decisions. And they want to make decisions. But whether we’ve got there quick enough, I’m not sure.
Ultimately, our stock results are in the World Cup (where) we’ll find out where our stock is in the world.
(The interview recording and transcription have been lightly edited)
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