National rugby team head coach Eddie Jones believes Japan can reach the quarterfinals of next year’s Rugby World Cup by flummoxing the opposition with “samurai eyes and ninja bodies.”
Japan, the 2019 host, has a woeful World Cup record — winning just once in 22 games despite appearing in all seven tournaments — but has strung together an unprecedented 10 straight victories under Jones, including prestigious wins over Wales and Italy.
But Jones, who led his native Australia to the 2003 World Cup final, warns Japan will get nowhere at next year’s competition in England unless his side plays to its strengths and forgets about taking on the opposition at its own game.
“When you’re a little team you definitely can’t win playing orthodox rugby,” Jones told a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo on Thursday, exactly one year before the 2015 World Cup begins. “We’re going to play against South Africa on Sept. 19, and the average height of their forwards is 196 cm. We haven’t got one forward who is 196 cm, so how are we supposed to beat them if we play orthodox rugby?
“We can’t physically smash the ball over the gain line, so we’ve got to beat teams by passing the ball. We’ve got to keep the ball. We pass the ball the ball anywhere from 150-180 times a game. A team like South Africa passes the ball around 90 times a game. The analogy in soccer would be like how Spain play.”
Japan has been drawn alongside two-time world champion South Africa, Scotland, Samoa and the United States in Pool B, but Jones believes a place in the quarterfinals is a realistic ambition having cracked the world top 10 rankings in June for the first time ever.
Jones concedes that his players will need a “modern bushido-type” fitness regime to cope with the physical demands, but the 54-year-old is also sure that they can find the right blend of speed and strength to make an impact.
“Our target is to make the quarterfinals of the next World Cup, and people think we’re crazy for saying that,” said Jones, who took charge in April 2012. “But people thought we were crazy three years ago saying we would make the top 10 and we have. That’s a fantastic achievement for Japan.
“When we play Samoa in the third game at the World Cup, we’re probably going to be giving up 7 kg per player. So we’ve got to be able to move quickly, we’ve got to be able to think quickly and we’ve got to be able to take opportunities when they come. We can’t play orthodox rugby, and to do that you need a lot of courage.”
Jones believes progress to the quarterfinals would “change Japan rugby forever,” but the sport could receive a more immediate boost when the Southern Hemisphere’s professional rugby chiefs decide on the Asian destination of a new Super Rugby franchise within the next few weeks.
Japan is vying with Singapore for the right to host the new team, which will enter the Southern Hemisphere’s premier club competition in 2016, and Jones believes the benefits would be enormous.
“It’s very close,” said Jones. “Obviously Singapore have an advantage because of travel and apparently a well-funded bid. But Japan has got a rugby history and a rugby structure to support a Super Rugby team.
“So I think it’s going to be decided in the next two or three weeks. If it goes Japan’s way, then the ability of Japan to put out a strong team is definitely there. If the base of our national team start playing 25 high-quality games a year, they are going to be infinitely better players.”
Jones also believes Japan would gain from playing more games against strong international opposition, and after missing last year’s first-ever test on home soil against the All Blacks having suffered a stroke, the Tasmania native is relishing the visit of the Maori All Blacks to Japan this November.
“They play with the same philosophy we play, but what they’ve got is athleticism, so we’re going to have to box clever,” Jones said of the two-game series in Kobe on Nov. 1 and Tokyo one week later. “We don’t want the game to be open because they’ll beat us. But I think the Maori All Black concept is fantastic and I think for them to come to Japan is a real honor.”