RWC 2015: Japan gave us something to cheer by flying in the face of what everyone assumed was logic - Brian Ashton

COLUMN: There was a flow to  Japan’s rugby – and a pioneering spirit too

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The Independent Online

I have no doubt that England’s victory over Fiji came as a welcome relief to everyone in the country after the marathon build-up to the World Cup – a marathon that was mirrored by the duration of last Friday’s match at Twickenham – but we still needed a galvanising moment to lift the spirits over the opening weekend. Japan gave us that – and it may be that we’ll never forget it.

This is not to point any finger of blame at the players involved in the curtain-raising contest, although no one could pretend it was anything other than a stuttering affair, full of disappointing errors. World Cup openers rarely produce whizz-bang rugby and when you throw in the significant impact of the big screen and the accompanying interjections of the television match official, you’re likely to end up with something slightly frustrating.

Stadium screens are a fact of life: a reflection, I suppose, of the way modern spectators wish to watch their rugby. But there was a real lowlight at Twickenham, all the same. I’m talking about the ridiculous referral to the TMO of the try finished by the Fiji wing Nemani Nadolo from a pinpoint crossfield kick.


It was as clear-cut a score as you could wish to see, yet the assistant referee, under whose very nose it had happened, felt unable to make a decision. Was it the Twickenham effect? Was he suffering from big-night nerves? Whatever, he should have passed the flag to someone else and caught the first train home, thereby allowing everyone else to get on with the game.

Was I alone in yearning for a massive dollop of inspiration from one of the succeeding fixtures to counterbalance the effects of a match that took the best part of two hours to complete? Probably not. I certainly wasn’t alone in celebrating it when it came, out of the blue and in bucketfuls, courtesy of the Japanese and their remarkable victory over South Africa.

In last week’s column I wrote of my World Cup hopes and expectations, and Japan, under the wily guidance of Eddie Jones and armed with the attention to detail of our very own Steve Borthwick, ticked almost all the boxes over the span of a single performance. They demonstrated that if a team are willing to enter the arena with what I called the “ABC” mindset – Ambition, Belief, Courage – and stick to it, they can achieve remarkable things.



At no point in my long rugby life have I ever had cause to doubt the Japanese passion for the game, or their unbending collective commitment to the cause. It’s in their sporting DNA. Additionally, their physical make-up has tended to push them into a very particular way of playing. The fantastic thing about their display against the Springboks was the intermingling of these distinctive qualities with a relentless tempo, a high level of accuracy and tactical innovation.

There are many in the rugby world who scoff at the word “creative”, but it exists in the game in its highest form and it comes from a mix of deep thought, common sense and logic. As someone once said, simplicity is genius. Japan showed us the truth of that in Brighton.

The military often talk about “dislocated expectations”, about the fact that no plan survives its first contact with the enemy. They also recognise that when they enter the combat arena, they walk into a “Vuca” world: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous. The Boks must have wondered if they had wandered into such a world, where their opponents flew in the face of what everyone else assumed was logic.

My friend Kevin Roberts, the executive chairman of Saatchi and Saatchi, calls this “Super Vuca”: Vibrant, Unreal, Crazy, Astounding. Who expected Japan to score from a driving line-out maul against physically superior opposition, or twice elect to scrummage penalties in the dying moments against so legendary a scrum nation? The answer lies in the question. They defied expectation through paradigm-shift thinking, and the Boks could not react.

In this age of database driven, prescriptive, so-called “scientific” analysis, the outcome was gratifying indeed. It was founded on the desire and grit of the players, all of whom were blessed with good technique and a well-developed sense of timing, especially in the heavy-duty areas of the game. The detail of their work at the tackle, the sharpness of their short passing, their willingness to keep both ball and people on the move with directional switches took the Springbok defence out of its comfort zone and knocked it out of synch. There was a flow to Japan’s rugby…and a pioneering spirit, too.

Can they stage a repeat performance today against a fully fresh Scotland side after a cruelly short turnaround? Will the Scots, who love to espouse the virtues of high-tempo rugby, suddenly have a change of heart in the face of Japan’s approach? It will be fascinating to see how the game unfolds. Mystery and intrigue – not things often associated with the bruising world of Test rugby – are in the air.

As for the forthcoming events this weekend, the big match-up will be at Twickenham, where Wales must confront England handicapped by rotten luck on the injury front. Will the absence of three high-calibre backs make a crucial difference to the Red Dragons? Having listened to Shaun Edwards, their famously combative defence coach, I for one will not be rushing out to splash lots of hard-earned money on an England victory of the stone-cold certain variety. As a certain Mr Einstein told us: “Adversity introduces a man to himself.”

Brian Ashton is a former England head coach who guided the team to the World Cup final in 2007