Rugby | ADDING THE EXTRAS

New JRFU boss Shigetaka Mori faces uphill battle to initiate needed reforms

by Rich Freeman

As a player Shigetaka Mori, the new president of the Japan Rugby Football Union, knew all about success at the domestic level.

As a member of the now-defunct Nippon Steel Corp. team in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, he helped the side win seven consecutive national championships from 1979 to 1985.

On the international stage, however, things were not as good.

Of the 27 games he played for Japan from 1974 to 1981, most were in what would now be classified as noncapped games — fixtures against Cambridge University, Oxford University, the Reds, Welsh Clubs, British Columbia and England Under-23s, among others. And of those, Japan won just six and drew one.

While Japan’s international standing has improved greatly since then, the problem Mori and his new committee faces is that much of the way Japan rugby is run is done the same way as it was when the 67-year-old former wing still laced up his boots.

“I am determined to lead the sport in Japan. I hope the national team will move up one spot at a time in the world rankings, as Japanese rugby undergoes a baptism of fire at the professional level,” he said.

At this stage it should be noted, rugby, as a global entity, actually turned professional 24 years ago.

While it is true the Top League sides are able to attract some of the best players and coaches in the world, the sport in general in Japan is decades behind the rest of the world in just about every aspect.

And one of the main reasons for this is the JRFU’s inability to follow its own motto, “One for all, all for one,” which for those unaware is not a piece of JRFU creative copyright genius but the motto associated with Alexandre Dumas’ fictional heroes The Three Musketeers.

Rugby here is inundated with examples of policies where the “one” (Japan) does things that the “all” (the rest of the world) stopped doing years ago, or never did in the first place.

If it were the Brave Blossoms and not the All Blacks that were the most successful sports (not just rugby) team of all time, then that attitude would not just be accepted but embraced.

But they are not and among the many things done here and nowhere else that so perplex the foreigners (many of whom have won World Cups and Super Rugby titles) brought to Japan to play and coach are:

1. Mandatory headgear for children despite most scientific studies that they do nothing to prevent concussion. This issue is made worse by some dreadful coaching regarding tackle techniques.

2. No age group rugby available for teens not attending a school with a rugby team.

3. University students forced to spend four years (18-22, the most formative for a sportsman) only playing other student sides.

4. Lack of central contracting for national representatives at both the 15s and 7s level and the Sunwolves.

Those defending the above will simply say “But this is Japan, this is the way we do things.”

Fair enough, but the Japan men’s and women’s sevens teams will both have to find innovative ways to prepare for the 2020 Olympics because they both failed to make core status for the 2019-20 sevens season.

At the same time, despite the huge numbers of players at university and high school here, Yoshitaka Mizuma and the Japan Under-20s are once again battling it out to try and win a spot in the top tier, having spent the last few years (like the sevens teams) going up and down like a yo-yo between the elite group and Tier 2.

On the bright side, the new committee, which for the first time in modern history, perhaps ever, does not contain anyone over 70 years old does seem to realize the importance of the task in hand.

“We have to work hard with the belief that what we do in the next year or two will decide the next 50 years of Japanese rugby,” said new chairman Kensuke Iwabuchi.

New vice president Katsuyuki Kiyomiya, meanwhile, said that Jamie Joseph should continue as Brave Blossoms coach post-World Cup to ensure there is some continuity moving forward.

Key to that and the other reforms will be the JRFU working as one. For in addition to working on the long-term future of the sport, both at the professional and grassroots level, the new bosses will also have to deal with more immediate problems, such as the cocaine scandal at Toyota Verblitz and the future of the Sunwolves (the team has been booted from Super Rugby after next season).

It is a long, tough road ahead but perhaps Mori and the JRFU will draw inspiration from Kiyoe Yoshioka, who sings the 2019 version of Rugby World Cup’s theme song “World in Union.”

“It’s the world in union

The world as one

As we climb to reach our destiny

A new age has begun.”

For as the Musketeers found out, “One for all, all for one,” really does work when you follow that motto to the letter.

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