TOKYO – Few people know Japanese rugby better than Robbie Deans, and the former Wallabies coach believes the country’s club structure has given the hosts a realistic chance of reaching the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals for the first time later this year.
Japan will become the first Asian hosts of the September 20-November 2 global showpiece, and the country’s clubs have made changes, including condensing the Top League competition, to ensure the national side succeeds.
“They have genuine and, I think, realistic, expectations of getting through to the quarters for the first time,” the 59-year-old Deans said in an interview with Reuters.
“They won’t be happy this time if they don’t reach the quarters. I think they are realistic hopes, but it will be a challenge.”
The Brave Blossoms produced the biggest upset in World Cup history four years ago in England when they beat two-time winners South Africa in pool play, but failed to advance to the knockout stages.
National coach Jamie Joseph has looked to add more physicality to that side he inherited from Eddie Jones, and Deans agreed the team require more “substance” if they are to compete at the highest level.
For this, Joseph may look towards some uncapped foreign-born players who are only becoming eligible for Japan this year.
“What will change in the next 12 months that possibly the public aren’t aware of, is that there is going to be some players who become eligible because of residency,” said Deans, who has guided Panasonic to two Top League titles since 2014.
“This will add some substance to the existing group… (which) has the capacity to play, be creative, be fast and they have got some skilful players… but they do need some more substance.
“They (also) need to learn when to go for it and when to go for the percentages. They haven’t learnt that yet.”
Deans is one of the game’s most experienced coaches, having won five Super Rugby titles with the Crusaders in New Zealand, before taking over as Wallabies coach in 2008.
The first foreigner to coach Australia, he led the Wallabies to a Tri-Nations title and a third-place finish at the World Cup in 2011.
Now happily settled in Japan, Deans sees many benefits in the Top League structure, not least the shorter season that allows players greater rest.
Unlike leagues in the rest of the world, all the teams within Japan’s top domestic competition are also owned by major companies, such as Panasonic, Toshiba and Suntory, and the majority of players are employees and still seen as ‘amateur’.
“What sets rugby apart from any other in the world is the teamwork element,” said Deans, who believes the set-up to be perfect for Japan.
“This is why it is the perfect sport here, because companies see the transferable components, the values of teamwork, and they want that to be translated across the workplace.
“The corporations fund the game because they care about the game and the values of the game, which is remarkable compared to everywhere else.
“It is pure.”
Deans added the corporations had also bought into the success of the home side at this year’s World Cup, and allowed Joseph to have his players for extended periods before they open the tournament on September 20 against Russia.
“Eddie (Jones) had a 365-day camp, Jamie is having about a 500-day camp,” joked Deans.
“The fact that the corporations adapted to that end says it all in terms of preparations.”
The inclusion of the Sunwolves into the Super Rugby competition from 2016 has also further progressed the Japanese game, Deans said.
“You get exposed to a higher level and then you take it back to your club, and it benefits Top League, particularly around contact,” said Deans.
“When I first arrived up here, the game was fast and skilful, but at the breakdown, there wasn’t really a contest.”
Deans, however, is also worried about what the long-term consequences of the Sunwolves could be, with companies looking to recruit more foreign players, which could stymie the development pathways for younger local players.
Joseph, himself, has also expressed concern that he might not have enough depth in crucial positions, with the quality behind current flyhalves Yu Tamura and Takuya Yamasawa limited.
“Because these companies are giving up their players to the national team in prep for the World Cup, they were withdrawn from camps and from the cup competition,” Deans said.
“This… means each club could have more foreigners, which personally I don’t understand.
“To me this is daft, and they expose themselves to risk like the French league did.”