It’s often said that it is a brave man who owns up to being wrong.
So some credit must be given to the Japan Rugby Football Union’s development director Takashi Katsuta following his admission on Tuesday that Japan’s autumn tour of Europe was a disaster.
“We felt we betrayed the expectations of rugby fans back home,” the chairman of selectors told journalists at JRFU headquarters at Chichibunomiya.
The tour — during which Japan lost 100-8 to Scotland, 98-0 to Wales and 25-10 to Romania — not only consigned the “glory days” of the 2003 Rugby World Cup to the history books, but also led many fans to question whether Japan should be allowed to host the 2011 RWC, given its pathetic performances on the field.
The Brave Blossoms’ cause was not helped by the fact that the team selected by Katsuta et al. was quite frankly a joke — with a number of key players ignored or not given permission to tour.
So it is refreshing to see that this time around the JRFU seems intent on not making the same mistake.
In the first place, it has left no stone unturned and named a squad of 50, who they hope will be able to not only turn things around but eventually get Japan to the stage where it can make the last eight of the 2007 World Cup.
Now to many this would simply be the cue to start humming the theme to “Mission Impossible,” but in appointing two Frenchmen as advisers, the JRFU has gone some way to doing what the national team has been crying out for — namely hiring a foreign coach.
With all due respect to Mitsutake Hagimoto — a one-time teammate and opponent of mine and an all-round decent bloke — the national team needs fresh ideas and it needs a foreign influence.
International Rugby Board chairman Syd Millar, on a recent trip to Japan, talked of the huge gap that exists between club and international rugby.
Millar said that the club game but does not prepare players for international competition, adding that “given the right competition (such as the European Cup or Super 12) Japan could do well, but coaches and players need the challenge of a level above club competition. It is essential that Japan and other countries allow their coaches to experience other rugby cultures and attend coaching courses overseas.”
It was surely no coincidence that Japan’s surprisingly good show in Australia at the 2003 RWC, came as a result of the increased influence of Australian coaches Mark Ella, Mark Bell and Gary Wallace.
But as David Campese said a few months before the Japan team left for Townsville, giving the coaches such a short time to get used to things was not going to make the team a winner overnight.
In appointing Jean-Pierre Ellissalde and Edmond Jorda to take charge of the forwards and backs, respectively, the JRFU seems to have taken some of the lessons on board.
However, one big question remains.
Mitsuyaki Nakayama, the JRFU’s technical advisor, pointed out that the French gameplan was the most appropriate for the Japanese as it involved forwards and backs combining to create space.
But the French style of “Champagne Rugby” is all about players being able to express themselves, and at times throwing the coaching manual out of the window as instinct takes over.
Watching the great French sides of the past, one could only marvel at the ability of the French players — whether they be props, locks of mercurial centers — to create something out of nothing.
There are many who believe the Japanese are better suited to the Australian game, which tends to be more structured and therefore better suited to players not known for their ability to think on their feet.
It is probably going to take more than a fair dose of heavenly intervention if the Brave Blossoms are soon emulating Jean-Pierre Rives, Serge Blanco and Phillipe Sella, but at least there is something on which to build, and fortune is said to favor the brave.
In announcing the schedule for the spring and summer tests, the JRFU has given the players every chance to shine on the international stage.
First up is a tour of South America and tests against Uruguay and Argentina.
This may well be a baptism of fire for the new coaches and players — particularly the game against the Pumas, who recently upset the French in Marseille — but will at least show the players what is needed if Japan is to rise in the world rankings.
In May, the team takes on Hong Kong and South Korea as part of the long and convoluted process of qualifying for the 2007 RWC, before taking part in the Super Powers Cup along with the United States, Canada and Romania.
And then, while most of the rugby world will be focused on the British and Irish Lions’ tour of New Zealand, Japan will play two tests against Ireland on June 12 and 19 in Osaka and Tokyo, respectively.
The JRFU will be hoping for a full gate at both these test matches as the games will probably coincide with a visit from the IRB, which will go a long way to determine whether Japan should be given the right to host the 2011 World Cup.
This wouldn’t be Japanese rugby, however, without one final sting in the tail.
The squad named by Katsuta contains 11 foreigners. Now, while some are naturalized Japanese, the inclusion of three foreigners no longer playing in Japan — Andy Miller, Reuben Parkinson and Jamie Washington — raises a few question marks.
Some may call this desperation, others that Japan is simply utilizing all the resources available.
Whatever the take, there is a lot resting on the shoulders of those that do make the final squad.
And talking of shoulders, the national team will be joining all the other teams in Japan in showing their support for the JRFU’s bid for the 2011 tournament by wearing Japan’s 2011 RWC patch. which shows a red ball rising like the sun over a set of goal posts.
Let’s just hope the shoulders won’t be slumping ones.
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