In the second part of our exclusive interview, Japan coach Eddie Jones shares his thoughts on the forthcoming Rugby World Cup and Super Rugby expansion with Graham Jenkins.
“I think for a country like Japan, winning the World Cup is not a realistic target but you have got to go there hoping to get out of that pool stage – why else would you go there?”
Eddie Jones is adamant that Japan can make a significant impact at this year’s Rugby World Cup but he is not so bullish about the long-term future of Japanese rugby.
However, he hopes that the introduction of a Japanese side into an expanded Super Rugby competition next year will go some way to cementing the development he has overseen since taking charge of the Brave Blossoms in 2012.
“The domestic game is a bit of a problem,” Jones told The Rugby Site. “There are 16 teams which is far too many for a country the size of Japan. If you look around the world, New Zealand have five full time professional teams, South Africa six, Australia has gone from three to five so for Japan to be trying to run 16 professional teams dilutes the competition too much."
“The top four teams are of a pretty reasonable quality but then the drop off after that is quite considerable so our players don’t get to play a lot of top level rugby at all. They are playing three or four decent games at Top League level then they play eight good quality Tests a year so it is only 12 games a year – it’s just not enough to develop the players.“
Japan has traditionally relied heavily on imports to raise the general standard of play and while they no longer dominate the national side, they remain a key part of the domestic game.
“The 16 top teams can have six imports in their squads but can only have two on the field at any one time,” explained Jones. “How much influence they have comes down to the quality of the individual player."
“Players like Fourie du Preez, Jacque Fourie, George Smith have enormous influence on their teams and improve the players around them, improve their knowledge and improve them tactically but like anywhere you also get journeymen who come in and they don’t really improve the game or those around them – that’s just the reality of professional rugby.”
Jones has welcomed the limited Super Rugby exposure that some of the leading Japanese players have enjoyed with the likes of Fumiaki Tanaka and Kotara Matsushima having joined the Highlanders and Waratahs respectively.
“It is fantastic. In three years we’ve gone from having two players involved in Super Rugby to I think about seven. That’s also a reflection of the growing status of the players which is pleasing and that also helps to increase the depth of knowledge within Japanese rugby.”
That is all about to change next year when Super Rugby comes to Japan with the new team set to be the national side in disguise along with a few notable imports.
“There’s not enough good quality players for it to be anything different,” said Jones. “I think the argument will be that it is basically the national side plus four or five marquee players, hopefully those players are already playing in Japan for their clubs and will just come and play Super Rugby if they still want to take on the challenge of playing Super Rugby at the highest level.”
Jones looks poised to take on the responsibility of running that side alongside his national team duties and return to the Super Rugby stage where he tasted success with the Brumbies in 2001.
“I don’t think there is any reason as to why you couldn’t juggle the roles,” he said. “I think it offers for consistency in terms of the players and what it basically means is that the national side will play 16 Super Rugby matches and 10 Test matches making a season of 26 top class games which would be fantastic.”
But Jones will not be around for ever and is concerned by the development of Japanese coaches.
“It is a bit outside my scope at the moment. My job is to get the national team to win. But one of things I have found having coaching Tier 1 countries, when you go to Tier 2 countries one of the major problems is the level of coaching – there’s no coach development."
“Coaches tend to be big fish in little ponds and they tend to think that they have got all the knowledge and they can be quite resistant to change and that is the game in Japan."
“To be successful at domestic level in Japan you don’t have to have a great knowledge of the game, you can understand how to win at club level, I have seen the same thing in Italy, Fiji, Tonga Samoa and you need your union to have a really cohesive coach development program to change that – one person can’t change that.”
Jones believes that Japan have great potential but is realistic about how far they can go.
“I don’t think that Japan is ever going to be a powerhouse. I think it can be a country that can knock on the door of the top eight and via a brand of rugby that is distinctly different from that played by everyone else in the world. That’s the challenge and if it does that then I think it will make world rugby much stronger."
“If you look at the game of the last period of time, the thing that has changed so much is the physical development of the players, they are bigger, stronger and faster now and Japan is always going to be behind in that area and you cant get away from that unfortunately."
“That stops them breaking into the top eight in the world but certainly it has the capacity to be around that 8th position playing a really distinctive brand of rugby.”
That said, Jones is confident that his side can reach that standard at this year’s World Cup having set the bold target of emerging from a pool that also included South Africa, Scotland, Samoa and the United States to secure a place in the quarter-finals.
“I’ve only been to the World Cup twice with Australia and South Africa and you go there wanting to win,” he said.
“I think for a country like Japan, winning the World Cup is not a realistic target but you have got to go there hoping to get out of that pool stage – why else would you go there?"
“If we’re not good enough to do it then that’s fair enough but we will go there with the mindset that we are going to win every game which will take us through to the quarter-finals. But it’s obviously going to be difficult.”
Such a strong showing would fuel hope ahead of the 2019 tournament when the world will descend on Japan – and Jones hopes the nation will also come out to play.
“The national side is doing better so we are seeing interest increase enormously and the last six months the media interest in the team has increased two-fold,” said Jones. “Spectator numbers are increasing slowly and there are a lot of rugby fans in Japan but they don’t tend to support the national team."
“They tend to support their company team or their university team, the aim is to get all those supporters to have two teams, they can keep their company team but also have the national side and the only way you do that is by winning.”
You sense that if Jones has his way he will be at the centre of proceedings at the 2019 World Cup.
“The World Cup in 2019 is very attractive and we are certainly building towards that. I had the experience of coaching Australia at a home World Cup in 2003 and to do that is fantastic experience."
“I see Super Rugby as being part of that and we are having some discussions along those lines and we are trying to work out what is best for Japanese rugby. We’ll just wait and see.”