Seiji Hirao: Mr. Rugby


At the Rugby World Cup Sevens in Hong Kong in March, a group of eminent rugby journalists were talking about Japan’s bid to host Rugby World Cup 2011.

After discussing — and agreeing — how the government-backed proposal by the Japan Rugby Football Union to host the tournament in this country would help the global development of the game by putting Asia squarely on the world rugby map, the journalists’ talk turned to tournaments past.

“Whatever happened to that fellow with the mustache who used to play fly-half?” asked one well-known New Zealander. “He really was a class apart.’

The “fellow” in question was Seiji Hirao — who just so happens to be one of the driving forces behind Japan’s bid to host the world’s third-biggest sporting event.

Known throughout his homeland as “Mr Rugby,” Hirao has been in the public eye ever since he led Fushimi Kogyo, his Kyoto high school, to the national high school title in 1980.

From there he went to the city’s Doshisha University, where he helped that august institution to three national university titles.

After he graduated in 1985, Hirao spent time in England playing for the famous Richmond club in west London before returning the following year to embark on a career with corporate side Kobe Steel. With Hirao at its core, the Steelers became the team to beat, winning seven succesive corporate and national titles between 1989 and 1995.

After winning 35 caps for his country, and representing Japan in the 1987, ’91 and ’95 Rugby World Cups, Hirao finally “hung up his boots” (as a player) and made the transition to coach, first at Kobe and then with the Japan national team, which he led at the 1999 World Cup in Wales.

Quitting the post in 2000, Hirao returned to Kobe to take on the role of general manager at the Steelers.

Well-educated and a “man of the world,” Hirao is often asked to deliver guest lectures on, in particular, the relationship between sport and business — in the course of which it is not unknown for him to air some of his outspoken views on the education system in Japan.

As busy as he is, The Japan Times recently caught up with the elusive “Mr. Rugby,” and tackled him on a wide range of issues covering both rugby and the wider world beyond.

You played in three World Cups as a player and then coached Japan in the 1999 tournmament. Which did you enjoy more, playing or coaching? And which players have impressed you most both as an opponent and, nowadays, as a coach?

I enjoyed both in different ways. When I was a player there was the physical commitment — but win or lose, the work was done on the day. As a coach you are always thinking about the following day and the next game. Mentally it is tougher; it’s an endless game.

I was up against many great players, though the Australians Michael Lynagh and David Campese, Scotland’s Gavin Hastings and Ireland’s Hugo MacNeill spring to mind. In the modern game, the players are more skillful. As a result, carefully rehearsed strategies have become very important. The Australians have shown that such programmed strategies can effectively limit the role of individuals, and as a result there are fewer charismatic players than before. In fact it has now got to a stage where there is no way to counter the strategies, and teams are increasingly having to rely on players such as England’s Rugby League convert Jason Robinson and Matt Rogers [an Australian R.L. convert] to use their individual skills to break the defensive lines that have been set up.

There seems to a difference now between the “tracksuit coach,” such as England’s Andy Robinson, and a “suit coach” such as Robinson’s predecessor, Sir Clive Woodward. Having progressed from the former to the latter, which role do you enjoy more?

Interesting question . . .

I enjoy being general manager and controlling things in general. Besides, I am too old and can’t run like I used to.

I have a nostalgic feeling about coaching, but don’t think I can go back to it.

But there are problems with the system. A good coach may be good on the ground but hopeless as regards finance. In Japan you start as an assistant coach, become a coach and then a general manager. But there are different qualities required for each role. Being good with a whistle doesn’t mean being good at figures. It is the same with companies. Every year you get a salary raise and a promotion. That is the Japanese system. You are not judged on quality. Promotion is automatic. I think it would be possible to have a general manager who has little or no coaching experience but who has the ability to judge the quality of officials and players.

You are often asked to talk to corporate leaders. What lessons do you think business can learn from rugby?

Rugby can teach business many things. In rugby, you have 15 players in the same team all doing different things but all hoping to achieve the same goal. There is more variety and a wider range of skills in a rugby team than in a soccer team, and business can learn how rugby coaches get these different people working together.

Then there are the areas of judgment and authority. On a rugby field everyone is a decision-maker, and the ability to make a decision is very important as it is the link between people.

In the 1960s, the economy was on the up and up, and Japan followed a baseball-type philosophy in that everyone listened to the boss or coach and followed what he said. But since the economic bubble burst nearly 15 years ago, it has become much more important to be able to make quick decisions and to be able to think while moving — especially in a field such as information technology. This ability is found in goal-orientated sports such as rugby.

Sports, society, education and the economy all influence each other. In the 1960s, team and company managements were run on the same principles, but that has changed now. Thanks to the Internet, players and workers now know things as soon as their managers do.

Japanese rugby is often described as being attractive to watch, but the general view overseas is that a Japanese team will never reach the higher echelons of international rugby. Do you think it is simply an issue of the players being too small, or are there other reasons?

For a long time the problem in Japan has been that players do not think for themselves. This goes back to the high-school competitions, which are “win at all costs.” The team style is more important, and there is a lack of individual skills and flair. Everything is too predictable, and this becomes engrained by the time players become members of the national squad.

Sport is about playing. Young children should be given as many options as possible so they can find out which sports they are better suited to, and which they are more skillful at. When they get older they can specialize in that particular sport. In other countries the number of options regarding sports are generally expanded. In Japan they are reducing. In rugby in Japan, for example, prop forwards are only expected to scrum, they are not allowed to kick.

Look at Wales. When the two teams played recently there was only a 1-kg difference between the players on average — but the Welsh played with enjoyment, and that was the real difference between the teams.

In the past, players would burn out after 10 years. This situation has been getting better and the players have changed. The problem is that the coaches haven’t changed with the times. They need to change the way they do things. Players now have better access to information and get knowledge from the Internet. And foreign players coming to Japan often have more knowledge than the coaches here and they should be utilized to the full.

As a coach you were responsible for picking a number of former All Blacks and foreigners for the Japan team. While that is simply what other countries have been doing for years, the fact that they stood out from their teammates meant the whole issue was focused on in more detail. What are your views on foreigners playing for Japan?

I believe in self-regulation as a union, with a third being the maximum. There is a need for foreign players and there is a big difference between a team that has and a team that doesn’t have foreign players. But I would like to borrow them.

The long-term view must be that we aim not to rely on them as we do now. We need a vision on how to use them.

More and more foreigners are coming to Japan to play rugby. We want Japanese players to compete with them. Now we ask them to play for Japan. It would be nice if they asked us if they could play for Japan.

You spent a year in England after graduating from Doshisha. How much of an eye-opener was that to you?

When I was at Richmond, the training sessions were not so different. What was surprising was that everyone played. We had around 100 players all playing for different teams within the same club.

At Japanese universities, only the 1st XV play. As a result there is no motivation for the others. In England everyone had a target, and they all knew why they were training and did the right thing. The motivation factor was different.

In the past, players felt it was a duty to play. Their coaches would penalize them if they did not turn up for training and the accepted view was that rugby should not be enjoyed. It should be a hardship. The harder your life the better person you would be.

However, I believe you should play for the love of the game — and that should be taught at schools in physical education classes.

When you make a tackle you must be willing to do it. You shouldn’t be forced. The old philosophy in Japanese rugby was laid out by a former coach who said to his players that they were going to die and that he would pick up their bones.

But we played far fewer games then. Now they play so many, they cannot afford to die. But that worked well at the time and was the best message we could have to perform better. It was a concept that worked well with the Japanese national character at the time.

Now that has changed and we need to find a concept that works well in the modern era and allows players to enjoy the game. We need to work out how to present that concept to the new players.

Do you think that perhaps some of the top players might find the right concept if they were to follow your example and spend time overseas?

I think it is a good idea for players to go overseas. It would make them more flexible, but it needs to be done in a structured way.

There should be a JRFU scholarship system whereby players go for a year and then come back and share their experience with their teammates.

At the moment there is too much risk involved, as players have to quit their companies if they go overseas. I think it would better for individuals to go overseas rather than the national team — especially after the results last autumn [when Japan lost 100-8 to Scotland; 98-0 to Wales; and 25-10 to Romania].

I have watched rugby in Japan for a number of years, and it is amazing how the level of the game has improved at the domestic level. Yet at international level the national team still struggles. Why is there such a difference?

Players in the national team feel much more at home with their club teams. They have more identity and affinity with their clubs. They have better conditions, information, technology and health care. They feel no identity with the national team and there is little pride there.

The Top League teams are very professional and compete with one another off the field. This makes the players very comfortable.

How to raise the morale of the national team is a key issue.

Before and during the tour of Europe there were some real injuries, but some players were worried about getting hurt playing for the national team and missing the Top League season. Players are often praised when they play for their clubs or universities, but they are criticized when they play for the national team and they do not like that at all.

You talked earlier about bad habits being engrained in players. Do you think the present system in which univeristy players only play against other student teams, rather than getting a “real rugby education” by playing in the Top League against corporate teams is holding back the development of rugby in Japan?

Absolutely true. It would be much better if the top college players played club rugby. But the rugby structure is geared toward the corporations not the players.

It is still better for players to graduate and then get a rugby-related job. The rules would need to be changed to allow university players to play in the Top League, but many players go to university because of their rugby.

I would like to see dual registrations introduced, so players could play both — but we need to do something soon. We need to change the seasons of both Top League and University Championships, especially if we do host the 2011 Rugby World Cup. It must be done to give the players better opposition and more experience. We have had the present structure for too many years and the corporations and universities do not want to change. Tradition is the problem.

Why has Japan put in a bid to host the Rugby World Cup, and why do you think they should be awarded the competition?

The Rugby World Cup is the request of an era. We have to do this.

The level and popularity of rugby in Japan has been falling, and if we wait it could be too late. This is like a bomb — a tool to accelerate movement — and it is our big target.

By hosting the RWC, we will raise the level of the national team and raise the popularity of the game. We need the RWC to make this happen.

Also, the rugby world needs Asia, and wants Asia to be a part of it. Japan is the only country with an infrastructure capable of staging the event.

Finally, if you look to the 2027 World Cup, where would you like Japanese rugby to be?

I would like to see Japan playing England and Australia on a regular basis and on a competitive level. But to do that we need to perfect the development system and raise the level of our players.

I would like to see rugby players appearing in television commercials, and I would like to be able to sit back and enjoy the game.