RWC 2015: Eddie Jones' delight at shoving sumo off its pedestal back in Japan

Experienced coach tells Chris Hewett that his team will not be satisfied with just their sensational win over the Springboks

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The Independent Online

It was a dirty day in Brighton, the wind and rain sweeping down the King’s Road a few soggy yards from the beach, but the preceding weekend could not have been cleaner or more above board from the Japanese perspective. “That’s the beauty of these players,” remarked Eddie Jones, the national coach, reflecting on the aftermath of the world-upside-down victory over South Africa. “You can have an old-fashioned team celebration over dinner and nobody gets himself arrested.”

Jones had a familiar glint in his eye as his charges prepared to up sticks and head for Gloucester, where they take on Scotland at Kingsholm on Wednesday – a game that could give the strongest team in Asian rugby (which is not saying much) something more than an even-money shot at reaching the quarter-finals of this global tournament (which would say an awful lot, at deafening volume). The eighth World Cup is 80 minutes away from being knocked clean off its axis.

“Rugby is on the news back home, apparently,” remarked the Australian, smiling sardonically. “Usually, the sports bulletins are all about sumo and baseball. It seems those big sumo guys have had to move out of the way.” He was speaking metaphorically – in reality, the men who wrestle for a living in the traditional Japanese style are all but immovable – but there was no mistaking the coach’s sense of satisfaction. “Rugby people are always talking about developing the game as a global sport,” he continued. “Having an Asian side in the news like this brings that closer.”

The victory over the Springboks takes some believing, even now: the union game is fully professional in Japan, but the home-grown players – a description that applies to the vast majority of the current 31-man squad – are small in stature by modern standards and alarmingly green about the gills.

 

The powerhouse nations are able to blood their Test players in elite matches against the very strongest international teams: of the South Africans who started that momentous game three days ago, only the back-row forward Schalk Burger had made his debut against low-ranked opposition. By contrast, a good number of the Japanese players won their first caps against the likes of South Korea, the Philippines, Kazakhstan and the Arabian Gulf.

It takes a deeply experienced strategist who also happens to be touched with genius – someone like Jones, who guided an understrength Wallaby team to the World Cup final in 2003 and helped push the Springboks towards the title four years later – to pull a stunt like the one we saw at the Brighton Community Stadium, as teams such as Japan do not beat teams such as South Africa by accident.

According to the man himself, this achievement also owed something to the input of two inexperienced coaches of vast potential: Steve Borthwick, the former England captain, and Marc Dal Maso, the one-time France hooker.

“Steve has been outstanding for us: every time I see him he has his head stuck in a computer and no one knows more about the line-out, which is such a big part of the game for a team of small men like ours,” Jones said. “As for Marc, he’s had a major effect on our scrummaging. Who could have anticipated seeing us opting for scrums against South Africa in overtime in a push to win the game?

“I have a lot of confidence in our set piece, although I must admit that on Saturday, I was screaming for us to kick the last penalty, take the three points and settle for the draw.” The obvious peril now is a premature outbreak of “job done-ism” among the players. “That’s always a risk in these circumstances,” Jones agreed. “But there’s good leadership in the team and I’d back our physical fitness against that of virtually any other side in the tournament. And anyway, if the players aren’t excited after what happened at the weekend, I don’t know of anything that could excite them.

“We didn’t come here to have one splash in the pond. We came with two targets – to make the quarter-finals and be the team of the tournament – and we’ve made a start. I see the game against Scotland as our most important at this World Cup.”

Talking of the Scots – and true to form, Jones did a lot of talking about the Scots – there may well be an edge about the Japanese when they take the field at Castle Grim. Jones made reference to his rivals’ prediction that Japan would “tank” against the Springboks in an effort to keep themselves fresh for this one. “If we tanked on Saturday,” he said, “there’s a good performance coming up.”

Had he found the assumption patronising or irritating? Jones responded with a classic feint-and-punch routine. “Neither really,” he commented, before counter-attacking by saying: “Different teams take different approaches to a World Cup, but we don’t have the luxury of doing anything other than picking our best team. To suggest we’d save ourselves for Scotland… that’s an unusual thing.

“I don’t think this will be a pretty game: they’ll maul, they’ll punt the ball high, they’ll play off Greig Laidlaw at scrum-half, who’s their key man. We have some variations we can bring to the match, but it won’t come down to surprise tactics. It will be about the basics of rugby and that’s where we have to be competitive.

“The first 30 minutes will be crucial for us: if we’re in it after half an hour, I reckon we’ll get a result. If you look at the Scots’ record over the last 15 years, you’ll see that unless they get a lead, they struggle to win matches.”

Jones has made eight changes to his starting line-up, two of them positional, but the indefatigable captain, Michael Leitch, will be in the back row once again. Jones obviously trusts him. “Last Saturday morning,” the coach recalled, “we had a coffee on the beach. The sun was shining and I said to him: ‘Do it your way. If you think it’s on, go for it.’ Which is what he did at the end.” And how.

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