Ben Ryan: Japan have pumped a new sense of style and smile into this Rugby World Cup

Success has been deserved with their enlightened play, and South Africa could be the next victims in the quarter-finals

Japan captain Michael Leitch, top right, stretches teammate Lomano Lava Lemeki during a training session in Tokyo, Japan, Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019. Japan play South Africa in a Rugby World Cup quarterfinal on Sunday Oct. 20. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)
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Phases of attack that run into their twenties or thirties are not uncommon in the modern game.

If they were full of surprise and skill then we would all be lauding them. But they aren’t. Not even close.

Often one big ball carrier after another, until defenders have run out, or a penalty has been won. Bore off. It’s killing the game.

Japan have brought a big defibrillator to all this, and pumped a new sense of style and smile around rugby’s central nervous system.

Japan’s success at this Rugby World Cup has been thoroughly deserved. In 2015 it was about one moment in one game. The head coach almost got in the way and spoilt it.

Japan has a kickable penalty to draw the game against South Africa in Brighton. Eddie Jones, then the Japanese head coach, was shouting to take the three points. They ignored him and went on to score a try that made a movie with him centre stage, and set him up for the England job.

Four years on, and it’s not one moment, but many. Japan deservedly beat all their pool opponents, and are the first Asian team to make a quarter-final. It might not end there.

All this has come using a number of ideas. They vary in impact. Combined together, they have put them into a match against South Africa that they will feel they have a real chance of winning.

It is worth having a look under the bonnet to see what is driving this. The first is preparation. They have known the draw, schedule and opposition for a long time.

As hosts they also have the longest rest periods between games. This has also allowed more consistency in the week prior to a match. Balanced and well thought out, they are getting to the start line fresh and good to go.

Adding to that freshness is their ability to control the game time of their players. With the Sunwolves, Japan’s Super Rugby franchise, they have rested many of their key men for huge periods, and given them every chance to be at their best.

New Zealand and Ireland also have a good control over their players, but neither has rested their squad as much as Japan.

Watching how good they look, it does beg questions about the amount of games played in a season.

We all love being able to watch high-level club and international matches for almost nine months of the year, but is this really what is best?

Japan have addressed this by reducing the matches their players play, and also by the style they have adopted. They knew their player base is not big, and physically they can’t play a game that matches many of their adversaries.

They have opted to heighten skill, and twin it with a game plan that maximises that. It also means the style they have adopted can be a blueprint for the players they want coming through their pathway.

That is a great advantage beyond this World Cup. Football teams like Barcelona, Ajax and more recently Manchester City have had a clear way to play that should mean if their head coach goes, the style remains.

When Jamie Joseph eventually leaves  - and he is not going to be short of suitors - the JRFU need to stick to the style they have.

To understand a little more of what they are trying to achieve, start with their phase first attack.

It is organised and relies on fast set piece. One hurdle to an upset this weekend is the fact the Springboks dismantled the Japanese line out in the warm-up match they played against each other pre-tournament.


The best photos from Japan's win over Scotland


That can’t happen again if Japan want to mount a serious challenge.

Once the ball has been won off scrum or line out, it’s about getting into the space quickly, with even faster support players.

You often see the first breakdown with a tackled player there are two Japanese clearers over the ball before any opponent has had an opportunity to compete. That, or an attack that looks to play to a space not a face.

It means they don’t need bulk or blunt force to win that collision. It is speed of movement.

They also nearly always remain on their feet, and so in the game.

The laws are adhered to to start the ruck, too, as they don’t get to breakdowns late, and then have to apply illegal movements - like judo rolls and collapsing rucks, which so many do, and World Rugby turn a blind eye to.

Post that first phase they shift the ball very quickly with options. They play a pattern of support players that other teams do as well but they “reload” faster than nearly all their rivals so they can hit the ball at pace.

Twinned with that, they switch direction of play a lot. Yutaka Negare and Yu Tamura, the half backs, orchestrate this.

It means the line speed their opponents try to impose is not as fast as they want, as they aren’t sure where they will attack.

Another tool they use is to avoid getting into an arm wrestle. Tied in to all of this is their fundamentals. They have realised pass, catch and tackle need to be brilliant. The ball is moved so accurately and swiftly it creates time and space.

Their tackle technique is low. They negate any argument that you have to hit high or you have to clear a player at a ruck illegally.

Technique can surpass this. World Rugby need to stop listening to some of the top tier teams that have helped lead us into the Wild West at breakdowns, and see that applying good skills and understanding can take away the mayhem and  the injuries.

All this is refreshing to see as a coach that wants to put skills first. It’s easy to get disillusioned at what is often dished out.

Phase play can be exciting if played like Japan. It must be a joy to practice and play that way.

I’ve always wanted to coach like that. With all the teams at XVs and sevens I’ve worked with, it’s been about heightening skill and decision making.

If we want the game to expand then more need to play like the Japanese. The global game has a new hero.