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Brave Blossoms spark rugby fever, now over to Union

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Japan's rugby national team celebrates after achieving the biggest upset in rugby history, defeating South Africa in the pool stage of the 2015 Rugby World Cup.   © Kyodo

LONDON -- Rugby is enjoying a rare moment in the limelight in Japan on the back of the nation's breakout performance in the World Cup in England. But the onus is now on people involved in the sport back home to seize a golden opportunity and ensure the country delivers a successful tournament in four years' time.

     The Brave Blossoms bowed out of the Rugby World Cup on a high note, holding off a spirited U.S. team on Sunday to win their final game 28-18. Japan narrowly missed out on the knockout stages, becoming the first team ever to win three pool matches yet fail to progress to the quarter-finals. But the team leaves with their heads held high after what was by far the best showing Japanese rugby has ever produced on the world stage.

Brains and brawn

The dramatic rise of Japanese rugby can be put down to the tireless work of the players and the coaching and support staff.

     For years, there has been a preconceived notion of Japanese players being naturally smaller and unable to compete physically with the sport's traditional powerhouses. Head coach Eddie Jones, however, refused to buy into that belief. Having taken the job in 2012, the Australian, who had previously led his home country at the World Cup, immediately began working on strength and conditioning, while at the same time ensuring players spent enough time outside the gym, raising fitness and endurance, traditional strengths of Japanese teams.

     Taking this combined approach to physical training has been made all the more difficult by the limited amount of time the national team spends together. Jones' solutions involved rigorous training regimes supported by cutting-edge sports science.

     Training has been extremely demanding. In addition to up to four practice sessions a day, the players were required to be in the gym at 5:00 a.m. The accepted wisdom in a sport as physical as rugby is to lower the training intensity in the runup to a big game, but Jones insisted the players continue weight training right up to match days.

     "It was the hardest training I have experienced in my rugby career," commented one player.

     Health and nutrition have also been key aspects of Jones' preparations, with the head coach getting the players to wear GPS devices, enabling the coaching staff to monitor the amount of ground each player covered during training sessions. Based on the data, the optimum level of nutrition was calculated for each player five times every day.

     Jones even enlisted the help of a system developer to create an application that recorded and managed daily changes in the players' physical condition. First thing every morning, the players were required to use the app to record over a dozen different aspects of their condition, ranging from their level of exhaustion to the degree of muscle tension. The information was then used by the coaching team to draw up practice plans and make team selections for upcoming matches.

     The idea was to "stop the training just before players start sustaining injuries" due to exhaustion, said forward Takeshi Kizu.

Bigger and better

One key player in the Japanese team managed to reduce his body fat ratio by 5 percentage points while increasing his muscle strength by 20% in the two years through this spring. Such dramatic developments appear even more striking when taking into consideration the low body fat ratio he boasted to begin with.

     All the hard work in training appears to have paid off as the Brave Blossoms gained the upper hand against South African and Samoan sides, with fitness levels in the final quarter proving the decisive factor. Moreover, the Japanese players were able to match the physical strength of their opponents in the scrum and at the all-important breakdown.

     "I realized that we had higher physical strength and fitness levels" throughout the matches, said fullback Ayumu Goromaru.

     In the past, Japan's national team has talked a good game about its unique brand of rugby, but failed to deliver on the field. This tournament, however, has been entirely different.

     Another key feature of Jones' approach has been to look outside his sport for inspiration. Earlier this year he spent the day with Bayern Munich boss Pep Guardiola discussing the tactical similarities between football and rugby. Four years ago he also began inviting retired Japanese mixed martial artist and professional wrestler Tsuyoshi Kosaka to training camps. With his help, the players learned the technique behind lowering the body upon making physical contact with an opponent, strengthening the team's tackling skills in preparation for the World Cup.

     The veteran coach has left no stone unturned in his preparations. In April he took his team on a tour of England, visiting all the match venues and training locations, enabling the players to visualize the matches they were preparing for.

     With different rule interpretations from various referees potentially being a decisive factor in the outcome of World Cup matches, Jones went to the extent of asking the designated referee for Japan's match with South Africa to officiate one of the team's pre-tournament friendly matches in August. 

Ready for the world

Another major achievement under Jones is the reduction of lost turnovers at the breakdown. Overcoming this weak point allowed the Japanese to maintain possession and set up a platform for their expansive attacking game.

     The development of individual players was also a big factor behind the team's transformation. In recent years, rugby has been facing a declining player population in Japan. Disappointing performances at the last World Cup only exacerbated the problem.

     With the weight of responsibility for Japanese rugby's popularity on their shoulders, and with a view to widening their playing experience, national team players Fumiaki Tanaka and Shota Horie sought opportunities in overseas leagues. They both started playing in New Zealand in the ITM Cup in 2012, and went on to become the first Japanese-born players in Super Rugby, the Southern Hemisphere's highest level club competition.

     Since then, eight of their compatriots have joined them in gaining vital overseas experience, with the higher levels of physicality in Super Rugby requiring them to bulk up even further. They have also become tougher and smarter, developing vital playing skills at the set-piece and the breakdown. The greater intensity in training at Super Rugby clubs has in turn had a positive effect on training sessions for the Brave Blossoms. Players with Super Rugby experience, having seen their teammates put their bodies on the line in New Zealand and Australia, began demanding the same commitment from their fellow Japan national team players.

     This development is not unlike a period Japanese soccer went through in the early 2000s, when a number of Japanese players began gaining vital experience overseas, raising the level of other players in the national team. This change has come to rugby 10 to 15 years later and laid the foundation for the improved performance in England.

Next challenge

Until this World Cup, Japan sole victory in the tournament had come in a match against Zimbabwe back in 1991. This is why Japan's victory over two-time world champions South Africa was hailed as the biggest upset in the sport's history. Although the coaching staff have refused to blame the short turnaround between matches for the defeat to Scotland, having only three days rest had clearly left Japanese side exhausted. But the following wins against Samoa and the U.S. proved that the Japanese team has indeed improved dramatically on the world stage.

     The team's success has instantly boosted the sport's popularity, creating the first rugby boom in Japan since the 1980s.

     Officials at the Japan Rugby Football Union acknowledge that the national team's vastly improved performance is owed to the hard work of players and team staff, rather than the organization's long-term planning.

     "I credit the victories entirely to the team," one union official said. "The Japanese rugby community as a whole has not made enough of a contribution to claim the glory," the official continued.

     It now becomes crucial that JRFU officials take the opportunity to drive forward the sport's popularity, with a view to hosting a successful tournament in 2019.

     Filling the vacancy left by Eddie Jones, who begins work as coach of the Capetown-based Stormers in Super Rugby straight after the World Cup, will be the very first priority for the JRFU. Second will be to ensure that the country's new Super Rugby franchise, the Sunwolves, are as competitive as the national team have been in England. If they can deliver on the field, Japanese rugby's moment in the limelight could continue a while longer, and crucially widen the sport's fan-base.

     The challenges ahead are far from easy, but with the national team having played its part in the development of Japanese rugby, the sport's administrators cannot afford to drop the ball and lose the momentum generated by the Brave Blossoms' success.

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