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Same old squabbles preventing Japanese rugby from capitalizing on gains of 2015

by Rich Freeman

Rock legend Bruce Springsteen may not be the most obvious person to quote when starting a new column on Japanese rugby.

After all, ‘The Boss’ is more synonymous with the “Glory Days” of baseball and all things American.

But the first verse of the song “One Step Up” from the 1987 album “Tunnel of Love” is as good a way as any of trying to explain the position rugby in Japan keeps finding itself in.

“We’ve given each other some hard lessons lately,

But we ain’t learnin’,

We’re the same sad story that’s a fact,

One step up and two steps back.”

Three years ago, the Brave Blossoms produced one of the biggest upsets rugby — and indeed any sport — has ever seen when they beat South Africa at the Rugby World Cup.

A year later, the Japan sevens team shocked New Zealand on its way to a fourth-place finish at the Rio Olympics.

Sixteen months away from hosting the next Rugby World Cup and with the Tokyo Olympics following a year later, rugby should be on the crest of a wave.

But instead it finds itself in a similar old mess as the plethora of committees and cliques that run the various teams and competitions fail to adhere to a common playbook.

Off the field, for example, a recent spat between the Japan Rugby Football Union and the Sunwolves saw Jun Ikeda (the chief branding officer with the Super Rugby side) resign from the JRFU board, as it became clear there was no middle ground between ancient and modern views on how the sport should be run and marketed.

Ikeda’s cause hasn’t been helped by falling attendances — though he would be totally justified in feeling aggrieved that the Top League ran a street rugby festival on April 7 at the exact same time the Sunwolves were playing the Waratahs just a few kilometers away.

Meanwhile, on the field, a string of losses for the Sunwolves has resulted in certain members of the media making it very clear they want Jamie Joseph, who doubles as coach of the Brave Blossoms and the Super Rugby side, removed.

The adulation that followed some good results in November — when Japan hammered Tonga and drew with France in Paris — has been replaced with anger and impatience as the Sunwolves have made a mockery of their “Top 5 in 2018” slogan.

“I’m the leader of the team, and I have to set high goals so that my players can aspire to be the best against the best teams in the world,” Joseph said recently after the Sunwolves (now 0-8) lost their seventh straight game.

Joseph has not been helped by the intricacies of rugby in the Land of the Rising Sun, with the contract structure of the top players varying according to whether they are professional rugby players or company employees.

The Sunwolves — as do the national team, whose only real payment to the players is ¥4,000 per diem — rely on the generosity of the companies and while the relationship is far better than it has been, it does not make for smooth sailing.

And then there are universities, who have been known to demand the recall of a player from national team duty so he can play in the collegiate championship.

And it’s not just Joseph who has been affected.

Sevens coach Damian Karauna recently told a few home truths after his men’s team triumphed in Hong Kong to regain core team status on the 2018-19 World Sevens Series, having been relegated a year after just missing out on Olympic bronze.

“Ideally, like all World Series teams I’d like a centralized program,” Karauna told the South China Morning Post. “It’s the only way forward.”

“These guys are specialist 15s players. We have them for two weeks. That’s how little time we have with them.

“Unless we have more time with them then we are going to stay at this level and we can’t get better. The problem we have is consistency of players. We have such a large turnaround of players, we’ve got to plan ahead.”

But long-term planning doesn’t really seem high on the agenda of the various committees in charge.

The local organizing committee of the World Cup is only interested in 2019. And the JRFU is playing along by constantly changing the structure of the Top League and the rules on player eligibility in the hope Japan can repeat the heroics of 2015, at the expense of long-term development.

There is also confusion over the goal for the sevens team.

“We have to understand what we’re trying to achieve. Is it World Series or is it Tokyo?” questioned Kaurana.

It’s fair to say that there are more than a few Japanese rugby fans who can relate to Springsteen as he continues to mourn what might have been.

“I’m sittin’ here in this bar tonight,

But all I’m thinkin’ is,

I’m the same old story same old act,

One step up and two steps back.”

Rich Freeman writes about rugby for Kyodo News and can be heard talking about it during Sunwolves’ home games.