Japan ready to think big after hard years keeping up with Eddie Jones | Sport

Daisuke Ohata is in a hurry. He blows in, fringe fluttering, suit flapping, his manager reeling behind him. “No, no, no,” he barks when the translator stands up for the formal introductions. “No introductions, time is too tight.” Ohata has a bullet train to catch, but the way he is moving it is like he is planning on overtaking it after it has left the station. Which fits. Because if you can picture Ohata, you will see him racing down the right wing past Allan Bateman maybe, or Tommy Bowe or Christophe Dominici or any other of the hapless backs he beat on his way to the tryline.

Ohata scored 69 tries in Tests, which is still the world record: six more than Shane Williams, five more than David Campese, two more than Bryan Habana. A lot of them were against teams way down the rankings – South Korea, Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong – but, still, he is in the World Rugby Hall of Fame, and in Japan he is a superstar.

Not, he says, that it counts for much. “Before this World Cup the word rugby didn’t even really register in people’s minds,” Ohata says. “Yes, it’s changing, but this kind of popularity we have now was unthinkable even a month ago.”

Baseball is the big sport, and has been since before Ohata was a kid. “All my friends were playing it, and everyone was a Hanshin Tigers fan,” he says. “But I didn’t like that, I wanted to build an identity for myself around doing something different and interesting and that was rugby.”

Ohata played for Japan between 1996 and 2006, all through the underdog years. He says he was never worried about the world record. “Individual tries aren’t what rugby’s about. What I really wanted was to send a message that you can be small and still compete.”

Things started to change for Japan in 2012, when Eddie Jones took over as coach. Ohata had retired by then because of a knee injury and his place had been taken by Toshiaki Hirose, who is from the same city as Ohata and played in the same position, but is a very different character. Hirose cheerfully says he is enjoying this World Cup because he has been able to “drink beer and watch it on TV”. But Jones saw something he liked in Hirose and made him captain.

Hirose still shudders when he thinks about what it was like to play for him. “Very tough. I don’t want to do that again, no thank you.”

They were close, Hirose says, but “Eddie was very hard – very, very hard – on me, on himself, and on everyone else.”

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There is a video of a press conference from 2012, after Japan had lost to the French Barbarians. Jones spoke for three minutes about how badly they had played. Then Hirose laughed nervously and Jones exploded. “It’s not funny.”

He spent the next 15 minutes tearing into the players, the press, and everyone else. “This is the problem with Japanese rugby.” Hirose stared at the table.

“At the time I was very angry about it,” Hirose says, “but later I started to understand that he wasn’t angry with me, he was angry with the union, the media, everybody.”

Hirose had to figure it out for himself. “Eddie never explained anything to me.”

Hirose realised it was a calculated insult. Jones wanted to spur them into thinking differently. “We didn’t have a winning culture because we had been losing for 24 years, so Eddie had to change our mindset. And that was very hard for him. Japanese people tend to focus on the ‘can’t’, Eddie taught us to focus on the ‘can’. He taught us that Japan may not be as big as other teams but we can still beat them because we have discipline, we have togetherness and we work hard.”

They started to see it on the pitch when they beat Georgia in Tbilisi in 2012, and again when they beat Wales in Tokyo in 2013. It was the beginning of the run towards that famous 2015 World Cup victory against South Africa in Brighton.

Hirose did not make it on to the field in that match. Jones, who once described him as “the best captain in the game” decided he was not worth his place. Hirose retired soon after and has been working as an actor in a soap set in a rugby club, No Side Game; he is also running a project called Scrum Unison, which teaches Japanese fans to sing along to their national anthem and everyone else’s too. The reason people in the stands during this tournament know all the words to, say, God Bless Fiji or the Himno Nacional de Uruguay is because they have studied Hirose’s videos.

Japan savour an impressive victory over South Africa in 2015, with then head coach Eddie Jones. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

His God Save The Queen makes me wince, but it is a brilliant project. It is like Hirose is running a one‑man campaign to do everything he can for the game. “I don’t just want Japanese people to watch rugby,” he says. “I want them to understand its values too.”

He is worried that the World Cup is going to be a missed opportunity, just like the last one. “In 2015, we beat South Africa and Samoa and maybe then lots of Japanese kids wanted to play rugby, but they had no place to go and play. This year we have another chance so we have to take it.”

Hirose and Ohata agree that Japan needs more games against the top countries. Hirose would like to see them play in the Rugby Championship alongside Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina. But more than that, he says: “We also need to develop a professional domestic league. Right now it’s still amateur, even though we have some professional players in it.” Below that “we also have to build up the grass roots, the schools, and clubs”.

First he would scrap the system that forces Japanese children to specialise in one sport from a young age. There are kids watching rugby for the first time now, Hirose says, who cannot switch to it because they are playing baseball. Maybe, he suggests, he will launch an academy. He has already started Japan’s first players’ association.

Hirose believes there are things Japanese people can learn from his sport. This team, he says, are role-modelling multiculturalism in a monocultural society. “Maybe if our teams was just Japanese it wouldn’t be so successful,” he says, “but we have Asian guys, Australian guys, Tongan guys, a real mix, not just Japanese.

“Outside of the sport, our population is shrinking so we need foreigners to immigrate. It’s an important lesson not just for Japanese rugby but for Japan, because we can show people how you can make a successful team from a diverse mix of people.”

I am not sure Ohata would agree with all that. He talks instead about how, rather than rely on help from the rest of the world, he would like Japan to lead the development of the sport “by sending a message to the other teams in Asia that they can do well too”.

Where he and Hirose do come together, though, is in their disbelief at how much the game changed in the short time since they retired. Japan are not a team of underdogs anymore.

“If they can beat Ireland there’s no limit to what they can do,” says Ohata. “It’s much bigger already,” says Hirose. “Rugby’s not a major sport in Japan yet, but if we get this right it can become one.”


Source link : https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2019/oct/12/japan-rugby-world-cup-eddie-jones

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Publish date : 2019-10-12 13:42:11

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