On 16th September, Tier 2 Rugby wrote on excellent article on Japanese Rugby. Full of insight into the professional arm of the sport, it highlighted a number of reasons why Eddie Jones decided to part company with the JRFU. But Tom felt the analysis was a little too westerner-centric, didn’t explain why certain conditions exist in the sport in Japan and offered solutions which were overtly “just-do-it-like-we-do-in-the-west”, ignoring the local cultural context. Here’s his response.
One of the big successes at this year’s Rugby World Cup has been the rise of Japan. Under the excellent tutelage of Eddie Jones (and ably supported by Marc dal Maso, Leigh Jones and Steve Borthwick), the Brave Blossoms went notched up as many victories as did Wales – although unlike Wales, they actually defeated one of the big three SANZAR nations. Were it not for a schedule that favoured Scotland, they could well have qualified to play Australia in a quarter final.
But despite this success, Eddie Jones’ frustration with a lack of change in Japanese rugby reached such a level that he decided not to renew his contract and is now moving to new pastures. How can this happen? How can someone who has achieved so much and is so well-respected both in Japan and around the world quit the role at the peak of his popularity?
The answer lies in the structure of the game in Japan.
A massive player base
Japan has one of the largest rugby-playing populations in the world. There are 3,000 plus teams in the country with a playing population of 120,000. Typically, players begin to learn the sport from an early age as young as five or six at the many rugby schools dotted around the major cities. From there, they join the school network and then on to Univeristy. The best players typically receive some sort of scholarship from rugby-playing private Universities and these players can then be recruited by Japan’s largest corporations who fund the pinnacle of the sport in Japan – the Top League.
Typical of the Japanese education model, competition is tough. Although sport falls someway down the pecking order in Japan, to reach the peak you have to show total dedication and many hours application. But the path is narrow – for those who don’t play rugby at high school, it’s difficult to learn the game at University. And of course, for those who don’t enter University, there’s a big gap.
One’s pedigree is a prized asset in Japan, and those who have watched Japanese rugby from the stands know that on the sheet of paper that passes for a program that is handed out before the game, players names are listed with the University they attended and even their high school. It’s rare to see a player at the top level who is not a graduate. And when you consider that only 45% of the Japanese population are graduates, you can see the wastage in the system.
Takashi Sato is a 24 year old scrum half who plays for Kobe Steel. This is his profile page on the club’s web site. He started playing rugby from the age of 8 at Neyagawa – a well known club in the north of Osaka. His junior high school was Sada, again in Osaka. Then moved to Tokai Gyosei (a feeder for high school for Tokai University) and then finally to Doshisha Univeristy – one of the top rugby playing universities in the country. His club publish these details for each player in their squad.
Further complications arise around which university and which high school players attend. There is still a culture in Japan that dictates that it is not possible to excel at sport and academically – sport is seen as somewhat frivolous. So the better academic institutions typically either do not possess a strong sporting culture, or if they do, the two paths are very segregated. You have a choice, study hard and make a successful career or “play” rugby. You won’t find an international rugby player who is a qualified doctor.
Town-based teams very much sit outside this pyramid, and as such, it’s rare that players can move from traditional clubs into the professional leagues. It’s a narrow path – go to a rugby-playing high school, secure a scholarship to a private university who play rugby and then get recruited by a company to play in their company team.
There are two University leagues in Japan – one base in the east and the other in the west. In the Eastern Japan Kansai League (based around Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto-Nara), there are seven leagues containing 48 teams. Those Universities at the top of those leagues recruit the better players from high school, and the numbers involved are staggering. Many of the top University teams in Western Japan have player numbers in the hundreds. But there is simply no infrastructure to cope with these sort of playing numbers. Coaches are largely volunteers, even if the top Universities are recruiting the better coaches (Wayne Shelford enjoyed a stint at Ritsumeikan Univeristy). Despite a huge number of pitches the gap between an under-coached and ill-prepared elite and the rest is wide even within these large University clubs. With an over-concentration of talent in certain universities – many talented players or late developers rarely see a coach and revert to playing rugby merely for fun where results are not important. At second tier universities, facilities are chronically underfunded. Only a strong network of ex-players keeps these clubs afloat – sponsoring everything from weight training equipment to jerseys and training camps.
Company Teams in Japan
An effort has been made to add a geographical spread to rugby in Japan, but teams are still based around the corporate model. Here’s one example of how the systems works. A head of one of Japan’s major manufacturing companies was approached by the head of the JRFU and encouraged to increase investment in his company’s rugby team. New training facilities were built and the player budget increased (to attract top players from overseas). Why do companies invest in rugby in Japan? It is seen as partly marketing, partly something for employees to get behind and associate with and partly social responsibility. All this, however, has nothing to do with creating a pyramid from which international quality players will emerge.
There are a number of misconceptions around the indigenous players who are recruited by these companies from University. On the positive side, players have a strong chance of a career after rugby if they stay loyal to their company. The old “employee for life” system is dying out – despite what the out-of-date Western media will tell you. But nevertheless, when players careers are so relatively short, and can be ended with one tackle, having the security of stable employment is something those on the fringes of the sport would very much appreciate.
However, the idea that these players are semi-professional is misleading. They train twice a day, and although they do spend time at the office, the work they do is trivial in nature compared to more career-minded employees. “Working” at the marketing department means time spent in the marketing department, whereas professional players in the UK may spend an equal amount of time at the local Starbucks.
Traditional Club rugby
Japan’s multi-layed system also includes player who play for the love of the game for local town or city based teams. One of these is Okayama Rugby Football Club. Founded in 1953, they’re a club with 57 players, practicing once a week with a game on a Sunday. They have close links with local schools and also run a senior’s team. You could say that they are a typical rugby club that we would see in any Tier 1 country. They’ll pick up players who don’t travel the narrow path to contracts with the corporate teams and select players of all ages – perhaps those who don’t follow the university route but still love the sport. Hang on a minute, aren’t things supposed to be different in Japan?
Problems with this system
There is a horrendous waste of resources in that capable players who fall outside this narrow path have no way to break into what is essentially a ring-fenced, closed shop. Sadly, coaching standards are very low and receive low respect and priority. Despite being very reliant on High School and University coaches, the JRFU has no influence on who is recruited. An accreditation system has been created, but it falls a long way behind those in more developed countries. There is even a real possibility of graduates who do reach company teams actually seeing a fall in the standard of coaching.
But the money swilling around corporate Japan is huge. Vast salaries are paid to imported (usually) southern hemisphere players who play a limited number of games. With no pyramid in place between the corporate game and younger players, the scope to improve on skills is limited. There is no meaningful trickle down effect. With their huge salaries, it could be argued that these foreigners are a real drain on a system that desperately needs funding at the lower levels.
To western eyes, many facets of Japanese education seem strange or even outright bizarre. But from Japanese eyes, some of the practices in Western education are sloppy, lightweight and frivolous.
One of the many strengths of Japanese culture is the belief in total dedication to one’s path in life – make your choice and work to become the best you possibly can at this. This flows through into their approach to sport. So training can be an all-consuming affair from a young age. Rather than criticise this approach as limiting those who want to switch sport as they mature, shouldn’t we really be asking the question that given this dedication, why isn’t the system producing top class players? The playing numbers are huge – unlike tiny countries like New Zealand – so it really isn’t a numbers game. The issue is what is being coached – not how many are receiving the coaching.
The counterargument to the proposition that players like Courtney Lawes (basketball) or Alex Cuthbert (VIIs) crossing from other sports is a good thing, is to imagine how good a player they would be if they had the total dedication from an early age that is widespread in Japan.
So with so much dedication on show from Japan’s young rugby players, why doesn’t this transfer to success on the international stage?
Among the many criticisms Eddie Jones made of the sport in Japan, two in particular are worth looking at in more detail. The repetitive nature of coaching in junior high school was described as mundane and offering little variety. A second criticism (this time of players at the higher level of the sport) was of poor tackling skills. Both these issues have their roots in dreadful facilities.
Tenri is a city just outside Osaka in Western Japan. It is located in the prefecture of Nara, one of Japan’s ancient capitals and contains one of the nations top rugby schools. From elementary to high school right through to University, there is pathway for privately educated students to excel – and at Tenri, rugby is in the blood. This year, the team will complete in the 95th National High School Championship. Many of these high school games are televised – how many tier one countries can claim to show high school rugby on terestrial television?
One would expect such an institution such as this to possess some of the best facilities around. But this is far from the case. Pitches at lower levels in Japan are typically compacted dirt, inter sprinkled with grit. In the baking heat of the Japanese summer, these turn to concrete. In autumn when the typhoons visit, they can turn into mud-baths. Players regularly suffer serious abrasions to the skin, and in the summer months, these can become infected. Coaching a contact sport on these grounds is highly challenging. It’s really no wonder that the safe option is to choose repetitive passing drills.
In Japan’s densely populated cities, even finding a grass pitch is a challenge. Opportunities for joint practice sessions with corporate teams offer the possibility of access to better training facilities, but with the strict seniority system in Japan, games between Universities and company teams are a rare occurrence.
The JRFU recognises the challenge they face in Japan and they have a plan. Despite the recent upsurge in popularity as a result of success in England, there has been a long term decline in the popularity of the sport in the traditional base at Univeristy level. Faced with an impenetrable mass media the JRFU has struggle to get air time – the rise of soccer and the pre-eminence of baseball has proved an insurmountable barrier. Don’t be fooled by the wealth of the corporate teams, a lack of investment has seen clubs at all levels struggle. A lack of presence at youth level, in VIIs and the women’s game is chronic.
The JRFU has a strategic plan to drive the game forward in time for the next rugby world cup. Two main targets have been set
Target 1: Aware of the need to widen the historically narrow pipeline described above, the JRFU will focuss on community sports clubs, increasing the spread of tag rugby and the better utilisation of existing sporting facilities. They’ve set a target to increase participation by 75,000 (instituting a “200,000 campaign”).
Target 2: They aim to increase the number of spectators of the domestic Top League to 1.4 million by 2019 – a figure which would compare favourably to the cumulative attendances of Europe’s Rugby Champions Cup. This they hope to achieve through a number of branding and marketing initiatives (though ironically, their best promotional efforts have been achieved by the departing Eddie Jones and his team). One excellent initiative is that they will begin to build a database of all coaches, referees and players in an effort to understand the scope of the sport.
Challenges for the JRFU
The existing fragmented system in Japan is not conducive to producing a winning international team. Change is needed, but Japan doesn’t do dramatic change very well. And if anything, things are about to get worse.
The imposition of a Super Rugby franchise on the existing structure will create more of a circus than a development tool for the national side. The franchise won’t even play all its games in Japan, let alone create any links with local talent factories. Corporate owners will see it as competition, and already we’ve seen too many players who aspire to playing at a higher level ignoring the local franchise and moving overseas. It has all the makings of an approaching failure.
How to develop the game in Japan?
Although one could argue that it is not the job of the National Coach to create a plan for revolutionising the structure of the sport in Japan, one could also counter-argue who would know better than the national coach? Whilst we’ll probably never know what went on behind closed doors between Eddie Jones and the top echelons of the Japanese Rugby Football Union, it’s a real shame that he didn’t publicise what he wanted before walking away from the job. There’s others he could learn from in this respect.
In the absence of proposals from Eddie Jones, here’s three ideas that will hopefully stimulate some thinking.
Investment is desperately needed in facilities at the local level – and that mostly means Desso-type “GrassMaster” pitches. (In fact, this is already happening, though not necessarily from funds originating from the JRFU.) As mentioned above, the JRFU is working on an accreditation system for coaches, but imagine how successful this could have been if the official manual was written by Eddie Jones.
The sport needs to learn from the success of soccer in Japan which started off as a company-based league before finally moving to the J-League – a city-based competition.
The JRFU – working with the corporate sector – needs to build centres of excellence around regional teams and develop a pathway for all players, regardless of their age or academic pathway. These new teams should be encouraged to create links with local schools, universities and other corporations. JRFU needs to see these teams at the top of the pyramid, with selection and contracts offered to players irrespective of age.
Achieving this is a massive challenge for the JRFU and they will need all their years of experience and links with industry to make this happen.
The Super Rugby Franchise is a foreign creation by well-meaning people who really don’t understand the structure of the game in Japan and what needs to happen to encourage development. Without doubt, outside influence will help force change in Japan – as it has done throughout history. But this franchise is not the answer and could prove to be a further dangerous drain on funds. The answer is local, inclusive development, funded by rich corporations investing in the community.
But what is certainly beyond discussion, is that Japanese rugby will be all the poorer for that fact that Eddie Jones won’t be around to oversee or have an input into these or any other changes.
Tom was one of those atrocious Univeristy coaches in Japan where he lived for over four years. Although he did his best to avoid long and tedious sessions, some of his ex-players are disappointed that he didn’t apply the same principles to his post-match debriefings.