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 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.