The Eddie Jones Effect: Japanese Rugby Success Built on Coach’s Local Knowledge

Society Culture

Japan defied expectations at the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England with a strong performance that provides a firm foundation for when it hosts the next tournament in 2019. Eddie Jones, the team’s Australian coach, applied his knowledge of Japanese rugby to bringing the best out of the players.

Rugby in the Spotlight

Japan’s team left a strong impression at the 2015 Rugby World Cup held in England. In the previous seven tournaments it had managed just one victory, against Zimbabwe in 1991, and was widely regarded as being among the minnows this time. But Japan stunned fans around the world with an extraordinary 34–32 win over rugby giants South Africa in its opening match. Despite a loss against Scotland in the following game, it also managed to defeat the higher-ranked Samoan team and beat the United States to finish the tournament’s first round with three victories.

Falling short in the point differential, Japan was ultimately unable to meet the target set by Australian head coach Eddie Jones of reaching the quarterfinals. But the atmosphere surrounding the nation’s rugby has changed dramatically.

Fullback Gorōmaru Ayumu in particular has become a celebrity for his fine performances, while also drawing media interest for his regular routine before taking place kicks. Even popular “wide shows” (general interest television programs) gave extensive coverage to the press conference in which he announced that in 2016 he will join Australia’s Queensland Reds, which compete in the Super Rugby competition.

Jones also made the move to Super Rugby after announcing at the outset of the World Cup that he would leave the top Japan post, being named the head coach of the Stormers from Cape Town, South Africa. [On November 20 his plan changed again with the news that he would coach England’s national team.—Ed.] Speculation over his successor in Japan is drawing the same interest as for the national soccer coach. Jones spurred his team on by saying that their victories at the World Cup could change Japanese history, and his words have become reality.

The Importance of Local Knowledge

How was Jones able to achieve such a level of success? I spent more than 10 hours in interviews with him in the first half of 2015, when he told me that to become national team coach, two absolute requirements were to have prior coaching experience in that country and to have won tournaments as a coach. He also said that it is important to adapt quickly when starting at the international level.

Eddie Jones (left) gives instructions at a training session in Gloucester, England, on October 10, 2015, the day before Japan’s World Cup match against the United States. (© Jiji)

Jones’s Japanese coaching career began with Tōkai University. After going home to Australia, where he led the national team to the World Cup final in 2003, he returned to Japan and won the Top League as coach of Suntory Sungoliath. He told me that it was important for national coaches, not only of Japan, to have a good knowledge of the country’s rugby gained through coaching experience at the club level.

Eddie Jones was not Japan’s first foreign rugby coach. In the 2011 World Cup, the team was led by John Kirwan, a legendary player for the New Zealand All Blacks. Unfortunately, his team lacked flair and failed to record a single victory. This may have been simply due to a difference in coaching ability. I think, however, that Jones’s sharp observation of Japanese players was a factor in his success.

Harsh Words to Inspire Mental Strength

In 1996, while Jones was at Tōkai University, he also joined the Japanese national team’s coaching staff. At the age of 36, he took charge for a Pacific Rim Championship match in which the United States thrashed Japan 74–5 even though the teams were thought to be around the same level and Japan had won 24–18 against the same opponents a few weeks earlier. It was a seemingly inexplicable result, but Jones believed that the reason for defeat lay in the team’s preparation for the match.

He says that, as at other teams, he had avoided pushing them too hard in the week leading up to the match. As a result, the players lacked a sense of urgency in their performance and failed to meet test rugby standards. This experience taught him that pushing Japanese players is the way to bring out their ability.

In 2012, Jones became Japan’s head coach and changed his approach to the players, keeping a firm grip on the reins. Even when training overseas shortly before matches, he would yell at the players to sprint and, if he thought they were not giving their all, would bluntly tell them that if they wanted to jog they should go back to Japan.

I have also seen him encouraging players to take responsibility by saying that he will not change them—that they need to change themselves. The coach’s harsh words have certainly led to a loss of motivation in some players. At the same time, Jones knew that they would inspire the mental strength required to meet the challenges ahead.

The Pros and Cons of Conformity

Jones says that Japanese people are extremely resilient. Even when something is hard, they have a strong desire to get it done. He is not sure whether players in Australia would be able to stand up to the kind of severe training he put the Japanese team through, and perhaps, he says, he would take a different approach there. According to Jones, the reason why Japanese players can endure it is the strong pressure to conform with others, which means that nobody wants to be left behind.

In Japanese society, cooperation is generally seen as a virtue, and the ability to maintain rapport with those around is often praised. Jones, however, says that too much cooperation can be a bad thing when it comes to rugby. He notes, for example, that when the ball goes into touch, a forward has to decide the play for the lineout and signal to the others. In Japan, instead of one player making the call, it often becomes a group decision.

From Jones’s perspective, this appears to be nothing more than a clever way of avoiding responsibility. He says that rugby is a sport of decisions and judgments. A match moves at a furious pace, leaving no time for hesitation; if players do not apply their experience and knowledge to make quick decisions, the team will lose.

Japanese people have stressed the importance of harmony, but this is something that needs to change in the case of rugby.

A Courageous Decision

Under Jones’s demanding guidance, the Japanese players developed this needed independence and decisiveness. This was plain to see in the final moments of the World Cup match against South Africa.

South Africa was leading 32–29 when Japan won a penalty in front of the goal. Kicking for three points could have secured a draw to go down in the rugby history books. This was what Jones was hoping would happen.

Instead, the Japanese captain Michael Leitch opted for a scrum in the hope of winning the game. Ironically, the coach and captain made opposite decisions.

Michael Leitch (right) surges forward in Japan’s World Cup match against South Africa in Brighton, England, on September 19, 2015. (© Jiji)

After a breathtaking attack, a last-minute try by Karne Hesketh brought Japan a stunning victory in the final seconds. It was one of the biggest upsets in the history of rugby—and, indeed, the history of sport.

Ultimately, the players displayed the independence Jones had been seeking in their dramatic win. Although surprised by the decision to go for the scrum, he later said that he respected Leitch’s courageous decision. It was the moment that completed a glorious chapter in Japanese rugby—and perhaps opened a new one.

(Originally written in Japanese and published on November 18, 2015. Banner photo: Gorōmaru Ayumu (left) and Japanese players celebrate a second-half try against South Africa in the World Cup match in Brighton, England, on September 19, 2015. © Jiji.)

World Cup sports rugby Eddie Jones Goromaru Ayumu Michael Leitch