For followers of Japanese rugby, the last few weeks have not made for happy reading.
After Japan’s prospective World Cup squad had conceded 240 points on its four-game tour of Australia, playing essentially Super 12 reserve teams, Japan A took things to an even lower level on Thursday, conceding 97 points to New Zealand in Tokyo.
Wait, I hear you say. Isn’t that actually an improvement on the 145 points given up to the All Blacks in the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa?
Well, it would be but for the fact that the New Zealand team playing at Edogawa in Toyko was not the full national team, but a combined university outfit.
To put this into perspective, a team of professional rugby players (OK, some may not technically be paid to play rugby but that is the reason they are employed by their companies) was thrashed by a bunch of students — so comprehensively, in fact, that by the end the students were showboating to the crowd and displaying their full repertoire of skills.
But therein lies in the problem. The fact was the varsity team had all the skills at their disposal and used them to the full. Yet the Japan team — supposedly comprising the third best players in the country in their chosen positions — was clearly lacking in skill and commitment.
Time and time again, the ball was either kicked away or lost in contact situations, while tackles were missed. It would be easy to blame the players for this — but the real problem lies in the structure of Japanese rugby.
In New Zealand, as in other major rugby playing nations, children are tutored from an early age by qualified coaches. They are thus taught to do the basics and are encouraged to express themselves on the field.
This was evident on Thursday, with the New Zealand students not only proficient in all the basic skills but unafraid of doing the unexpected. Every player in the team, from the loosehead prop to the fullback, understood what was going on and knew instinctively how to react to a given situation.
While rugby is a team sport and therefore suits the Japanese group mentality, it is also a sport that requires every player to be a decision-maker who must continually assess the situation and make the appropriate choice as to what to do with the ball. This was clearly not the case with the Japan A team on Thursday.
The Japan Rugby Football Union hopes that the new professional league — the Top League — will not only raise the standard of rugby played in Japan but raise the profile of the sport, and, it has to be said, a number of club teams have improved considerably in the last few years.
But if Japan’s representative teams continue to perform so badly on the international stage, then fewer and fewer young players are going to want to take up the sport, no matter how well the likes of Suntory and NEC are playing.
Although Japan still ranks fourth in the world in terms of its number of registered rugby players, numbers are falling.
This is partly because parents believe the sport is what the Japanese refer to as 3K — kitsui (undesirable), kitanai (dirty) and kiken (dangerous) — hardly surprising given that most teams play on gravel surfaces.
If the JRFU is really serious about improving the game, it not only needs to develop grass fields that allow players to play the game as it should be played, but it also needs to encourage more and more qualified foreign coaches to come to Japan and teach players at an early age the skills that have made sides such as the Wallabies and All Blacks so successful.
There are a number of very talented rugby players in Japan and there is a huge potential player base. Yet these players need to be nurtured and coached properly, and a system needs to be put in place that prevents players from developing bad habits that either stay with them for life, or, in the case of tackling, ends up getting them seriously injured.
Rather than having to endure training sessions that last for hours on end in which players are told to repeat drill after drill (many of which have no relation to how a game is actually played) — as is the norm with many school sides — players should be put in match situations as often as possible.
The fact that so many school games are played in a tournament setting means that the first thought of the players is not to lose. And if they do lose but follow the coach’s instructions to the letter then it is the coach that will take responsibility for the loss.
Having played and coached in a number of countries I remember one of my first experiences of coaching in Japan. Giving the ball to a group of junior high school students the players stood and waited for me to tell them what to do. Confused by my silence they immediately started to do a drill.
Ten years previously in South Africa I had done the same thing to a group of schoolboys who immediately split up into two teams and started to play a game.
Training sessions need to be informative and instructional but they also need to be fun. Players need to learn the basics but also need to develop confidence in their own ability — aware that on the field they are the decision makers.
The JRFU has gone some way toward building to the future by setting up an Elite Academy to fast-track players that show potential, and the U-19 side recently finished a creditable ninth in the U-19 World Championship. Unfortunately, there is not a single foreign coach at the academy to fully develop the potential of these undoubtedly talented athletes and to advise them on what they may be doing wrong or to show them techniques and skills that have proved successful overseas.
And it is not just the players that need nurturing. Aspiring young coaches need to go overseas and serve an apprenticeship under coaches who have seen it all and done it all in terms of world rugby, so that they can impart their new found knowledge on young up-and-coming Japanese players.
Throwing an inexperienced coach into the deep end as the JRFU did on Thursday with one of its assistant coaches, who has yet to even coach at club level, made no sense whatsoever.
But then again why is that Japan is one of the few countries in the world that doesn’t employ a former rugby league player as a defense coach.
At one stage, Japan did have such a coach in Gary Wallace, who had been both a professional rugby league player and assistant coach with the Queensland Reds. Wallace not only helped the Japanese players develop their skills in one-on-one tackles but was also responsible for their improved fitness and conditioning.
But 16 months ago the powers that be, for reasons known only to themselves, decided that a Japanese coach could do better.
There are those that may think I am reading too much into recent events but the 337 points conceded in the last five games played by Japan’s representative sides prove that things are not as they should be.
Japanese rugby needs to change the way it is structured and change now or it risks falling to a level from which it may never recover.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.