The Japan rugby team has, particularly in the last 30 years, had a number of false dawns. The 1970s saw it lose narrowly to England (6-3 in 1971 and 21-19 in 1979); the 1980s saw it lose to Wales 29-24 in 1983 and beat a weakened Scotland team 28-24 in 1989, and in 1999 it beat Samoa 37-34 to win the Epson Cup. However, each of these peaks has been followed by a trough with the result that Japan has never managed to break into the top ranks of the game.
However, there is a growing belief that that is all about to change and the optimistic talk is not just emerging from Japan.
Two of the biggest names in world rugby were in Japan recently and both were full of praise for the changes that have been made in recent years.
Tim Horan and Graham Henry have seen and done just about everything there is in rugby — World Cup wins, British Lions’ tours, Super 12 campaigns — and the pair have experienced both the amateur and professional game in the northern and southern hemispheres.
“I have spoken with former All Blacks such as Alama Ieremia, Adrian Cashmore and Walter Little who are all playing over here and they couldn’t speak highly enough of the rugby scene in Japan,” said Henry.
The former Auckland, Wales and British Lions coach was on his fourth visit to Japan and spent four weeks helping Kiyoshi Imaizumi coach the Waseda University team.
“I came over with (former Wales captain) David Young and I have been very impressed. The players are very skillful and athletic and are well coached,” he explained.
Henry first came over in 1989 — when Imaizumi was a player and the university won its last championship.
“Waseda were on tour in England this year and they asked if I fancied coming over to help out,” said Henry who takes over as the technical director to the Auckland Rugby Union on July 22.
Horan was visiting Japan for the third time. Besides promoting the upcoming tour of English club side Saracens — the club he now plays for (injuries permitting) and whose backs he coaches — the former Wallaby center was also doing some coaching with Shimizu, which plays in the second division of the Kanto corporate league.
“I mentioned to Ken Iwabuchi that I fancied doing a bit of coaching and he helped set this up,” said Horan, who went on to say that he would retire at the end of next season.
Henry and Horan were both full of admiration for the enthusiasm shown by the Japanese players they have coached saying they are all very willing to learn and that the influx of top-grade foreign players and coaches has helped the local players develop their game.
“It works both ways,” said Horan. “Players at the end of their careers can come over and play some relatively easy rugby while at the same time impart their knowledge and skills on the local guys.”
Henry, however, was slightly worried as to the effect this could have on rugby in New Zealand. “The young players have no one to learn from. You need experienced players to form the backbone of the Super 12,” he said. “But having said that you have to be realistic and financially New Zealand cannot compete. Players make their choices — Andy Miller did and he has grown in confidence over here. He has made the decision to play for Japan but I think he could have been pushing for an All Black spot.”
With all their experience, Horan and Henry are not as “blinkered” (as Horan described some of the local players) as to imagine everything is rosy.
“There seems to be a mindset about size,” said Henry. “Of course they need big players to compete in the set pieces but it seems at times as if they worry too much about this.”
Horan agreed saying, “You can’t have a small pack in test rugby. Perhaps they need to look outside the sport as there are some big people over here.”
The game has gone about a huge transformation since turning professional in 1995 and the two Antipodeans had some advice for the fledgling professional game in Japan.
“The modern rugby environment needs organization,” said Henry. “The days of players playing off the cuff have gone. You need a system in place and decision makers and if you have a couple of players playing on instinct then that is ideal.”
Such a system would seem ideal for Japanese rugby, whose players are very good at following orders but who at times in the past seemed unable to change tactics according to the situation, and coach Shogo Mukai seems to have taken this on board. The recent game with South Korea was a case in point with the rigid system of Mukai and the individual flair of Miller and the Japanese back three creating a superb 90-24 win.
The proposed Super League can, according to Horan, only do the game even more good, as players play a greater number of competitive games. However the man known as “Helmet” was quick to point out that clubs and players should avoid playing too many games as is the case in the northern hemisphere.
“The number of injuries is rising as the players get stronger and bigger,” he said rubbing the wrist that he broke at the end of last season. “The other problem over here is that some of the players are a little too reckless in the tackle and their technique is not what it should be.”
Henry hoped that players in Japan would, despite the lure of professional rugby, keep other interests whether they be academic or job related. “The best players are those with other interests. You need a balance. I gave up being a headmaster because the demands of a professional coach were too great but I miss the balance it gave me.”
Next year sees the fifth Rugby World Cup being held in Australia and Henry and Horan both think that Japan can do well but that it might be one tournament too soon.
“Japan need a good build up and then believe in themselves that they can beat Fiji and Scotland,” said Horan. “They might not get into the quarterfinals this time around but by 2007 they could do very well. What they need is for some coaches to come over here and coach the coaches.”
As regards coaching, Henry pointed out that three years ago when Wales played England, the two Welsh coaches had dinner with the seven English coaches. “There was no way we could compete. If you want to win you need specialized coaches and you need the best.”
With their obvious enthusiasm for the brand of rugby played over here the Japan Rugby Union could do far worse than to keep inviting the likes of Henry and Horan over to impart their knowledge and experience on the young players in the hope that Japan learns from the best and finally breaks into the top ranks of world rugby.
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