October 26, 2016 1:00 pm JST

A death in Japan's rugby world

MAKOTO TANIGUCHI, Nikkei staff writer

TOKYO -- Seiji Hirao, who died on Oct. 20 at the age of 53 after suffering cholangiocellular cancer, achieved much in the rugby world. The Japan national team -- which won arguably the greatest upset in the sport's history by beating two-time world champion South Africa at last year's World Cup in England -- seems to have inherited his triumphs.

According to the Japan Rugby Football Union, Hirao passed away after suffering from cholangiocellular cancer for some time.

"Mr. Hirao understood the sport of rugby not only in the frame of the sport but from a wider perspective," recalled Kensuke Iwabuchi, general manager of the Japan national team. In 1997, Hirao put Iwabuchi, who was then a sophomore at Aoyama Gakuin University, on the national team.

Hirao was then the team's coach.

Iwabuchi says he does not remember receiving technical instructions from Hirao. "He never told me his opinions about the way I played rugby," Iwabuchi said, "this pass or kick is wrong, or anything like that."

Instead, Hirao tried to improve play by bringing in new ideas. He pioneered video and data analysis of opponents. He promptly edited a video of the first half of a game so his players could see the footage at half-time. Iwabuchi joined Saracens, a prestigious rugby team in the English Premiership, in 2000. "I thought the Japan national team was more advanced than its English counterpart in data analysis," he said.

Hirao also had his players learn from athletes in other sports. He once invited a Japan national soccer team player to give some kicking tips during training camp. He pushed the Hirao Project, a way of scouting that focused on athleticism in disciplines like sprinting and jumping, irrespective of whether a prospect had played rugby. He pioneered recruiting talent from other sports. The Japan Sports Agency is now implementing a similar program in preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

He endeavored to treat national team players as professionals by improving their working conditions. When they went on overseas trips, for instance, they flew business class instead of economy.

He "internationalized" the Japan national team by employing players from abroad. Previously, the team's 15 starting players had included no more than about three foreign players, but the number of foreign players averaged 5.67 in the three matches at the 1999 World Cup, in Wales. Hirao was the head coach.

Back then, a player could perform for a second country. Hirao appointed two former members of the New Zealand national team, Graeme Bachop and Jamie Joseph, as key members of the Japan national team.

Overseas media criticized Japan, calling it the Cherry Blacks, a pun on the nickname of New Zealand's national team, the All Blacks. The precursor to World Rugby would later forbid players from joining a second team.

In the meantime, Hirao paved the way for two successors -- John Kirwan and Eddie Jones -- to use foreign-born talent. In fact, it is still commonplace for Japan to have five or six non-Japanese among its 15 starters.

Despite Hirao's innovations, Japan had disappointing results at the 1999 World Cup. Samoa, which Japan had defeated four months earlier, stomped on Japan in pool play, 43-9. In the intervening four months, Samoa had gained new players and a winning attitude.

Japan also lost to Wales and Argentina in pool play. It left the tournament without a victory.

It was a time of rapid global change for the sport. The then-International Rugby Board in 1995 discarded its obstinate insistence that the World Cup be preserved for amateur players.

Suddenly, the top players in many countries could afford to devote all their time to training. As a result, they improved their physiques and techniques. The Japan team, with few pros, got left behind.

The Internet was just beginning to take off at the time, yet it remained difficult to obtain details about overseas teams. The rugby island of Japan had little contact with referees, instructors and others from the outside world.

As a result, it probably lacked the expertise to analyze where it stood on the global rugby scale. At the World Cup, Japan's opponents seemed to have made strides from where they had been. Many of Japan's players, meanwhile, couldn't even handle the pitch, slipping on the grass.

Iwabuchi was a member of that 1999 team. In 2012, he became the national team's general manager. One of the first tasks he took up was to analyze previous Japan teams as well as overseas teams. He concluded that "what the Japan national team did under Mr. Hirao was very advanced."

Iwabuchi would also refer to guidelines that Hirao had come up with. He would collect GPS data and use drones to harness even more information. Professionals from other sports -- including wrestlers and martial artists -- were asked to give input. Jones, the team's head coach, continued using Hirao's innovations.

Lessons learned from the 1999 humiliation were also taught. Iwabuchi and Jones planned training matches that would be played in World Cup-like conditions. Meticulous preparations would be made; the players would stay in first-class hotels; the chief referee would be of World Cup caliber; the matches would be played on top-notch turf.

Jones and other coaches analyzed other countries' national teams by networking with instructors and referees in foreign lands.

For the 16 years beginning with 1999, the number of professional players rose in Japan and the number of Japanese playing in overseas super leagues increased.

Then, at last year's World Cup, all the preparation and experience led to three victories in pool play, surprising opponents with long rugby histories.

"I'm not worthy of saying this," Iwabuchi said, "but we further modernized what had been done under Mr. Hirao to get the result at last year's World Cup."

Jones retired as head coach after the World Cup. Hirao took part in selecting Jones' successor. The selection, Joseph, had played under Hirao.

In January, the Japan Rugby Football Union decided to appoint Joseph as the head coach at a meeting of directors. That night, after 8 p.m., I asked Hirao, who was leaving Tokyo's Chichibunomiya Rugby Stadium, what made Joseph stand out. He stopped in the cold and replied, "He is a naively honest man as a human and as a player. I think it is good that he has been selected."

His eyes were sparkling, like they used to when he was a player.

Joseph will make his debut as national team coach on Nov. 5 at Chichibunomiya against Argentina.

Get Insights on Asia In Your Inbox

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

Get your first month for $0.99

Redeemable only through the Subscribe button below

Once subscribed, you can…

  • Read all stories with unlimited access (5 articles per month without subscription)
  • Use our smartphone and tablet apps

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

3 months for $9
SUBSCRIBE TODAY

Take advantage of this limited offer.
Subscribe now to get unlimited access to all articles.

To read the full story, Update your account

We could not renew your subscription.
You need to update your payment information.

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

Once subscribed, you can…

  • Read all stories with unlimited access (5 articles per month without subscription)
  • Use our smartphone and tablet apps

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

3 months for $9
SUBSCRIBE TODAY

Take advantage of this limited offer.
Subscribe now to get unlimited access to all articles.

To read the full story, Update your account

We could not renew your subscription.
You need to update your payment information.