Tuesday, 3 April 2018

The increasing influence of Tongans in Japan

Japan and Tongan rugby has been linked together for around 40 years. The origin story began in 1976 when Toshio Nakano, a visiting teacher from Daito Bunka University and also manager of its rugby team, introduced Japanese abacus (soroban) skills to King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV of Tonga. Apparently the late King was impressed and a friendship formed which led to Tongans going to study the abacus with Nakano on rugby scholarships.

In the mid 1980's three of the players who were amongst the earliest students to go and study at Daito Bunka University (Nofomuli Taumoefolau, Hopoi Taione, and Sinali Latu) became the first Tongans to play for Japan. Taumoefolau and Latu (both of whom also represented Tonga) went onto play in the inaugural World Cup in 1987 and were also part of the Japan team that recorded a first ever win over Tier 1 opposition against Scotland in 1989. All three of those players still live in Japan today and Latu's son has just this week signed for the leading Top League team the Panasonic Wild Knights.

GIF: Japan's first player from Tonga Nofomuli Taumoefolau scores vs USA at RWC 1987
A handful more would follow their path into the Japan team in the ensuing years. In the 1990's there was Sione Latu and Lopeti Oto. In the early to mid 2000's Luatangi Vatuvei and Touriki Mau. All of whom went from Tonga to Daito Bunka University. Various others of course did not reach national team level but went onto have Top League careers.

Eventually the contacts grew and Tongans spread across the country to various different Universities, with some also starting to move to Japan much younger whilst still only aged around only 15 or 16.

The first of these to represent Japan (Christian Loamanu, Katoni Otukolo, and Ryu Koliniasi Holani) were all players who moved to Shochi Fukaya High School and then onto Saitama Institute of Technology (which is also now where Taumoefolau now coaches). Loamanu became the first ever 18 year old to play for the Brave Blossoms in 2005, whilst Holani (also the nephew of Taumoefolau) made his debut three years later going onto win 44 caps and remains the most capped Tongan to play for Japan.

Tongans have been present in Japanese rugby for more than 30 years. Reportedly now after such a length of time there is now a wider network of contacts and support making it easier for the students. Most are very well integrated and far more fluent in the language compared to a lot of the New Zealand born players in Japan. Quite a few of the past players to have come from Tonga to Japan have married and settled there after their playing career has finished.

However over the last 2 or 3 years there has been a very noticeable new surge of Tongan talent coming through the ranks. In total 21 players have moved from Tonga to High School or University in Japan and gone on to represent the Brave Blossoms since Taumoefolau was the first 33 years ago in 1985. Of those 21 players, 10 have featured over just the past two years since the last World Cup, with 8 of them making their debut in either 2016 or 2017.

GIF: Amanaki Mafi and Amanaki Lotoahea combine to create a try vs Wales in November 2016 
Presently only one of those Tongans is an established first choice starter. Amanaki Mafi, who burst onto the scene in late 2014 and since become widely regarded as one of the leading players in Super Rugby for the Melbourne Rebels. However there will almost surely be more by the time of the 2023 World Cup.

In March watching Junior Japan score notable wins over Tonga A and Samoa A in the Pacific Challenge, three of their most influential players were all Tongan. Faulua Makisi and Tevita Tatafu in the back row along with big hitting young centre Saia Fifita. Makisi and Tatafu have both now won places in Japan's National Development squad suggesting they could be on the near term selection radar of Jamie Joseph, whilst Fifita is likely to feature at this year's Junior World Cup (following on from the last Tongan back to do so Ataata Moeakiola, who in 2016 scored a hat trick against South Africa and was nominated for player of the tournament).
Image result for Asipeli Moala
Asipeli Moala scored a hat trick in
Japan U19s recent win over Ireland 

Whilst Japan U19 later in the month recorded a noteworthy win over Ireland with four Tongans in their starting lineup. One of which was the number 8 Asipeli Moala (from the same High School as both Makisi and Fifita) who scored a hat trick and named man of the match.

Meanwhile another Tongan Hosea Saumaki, also a past student at Daito Bunka University, has been in monstrous early season form on the wing for the Sunwolves in Super Rugby. Although he has already played for Tonga at 7s, Saumaki is thought to be considering switching to Japan through playing for them in the Olympic qualifiers at some point next year (he was in fact already named in the Japan squad for the June tests in 2016 with them possibly unaware of him having played 7s for Tonga).

Video: Hosea Saumaki's superb performance for the Sunwolves vs Lions in Johannesburg

At almost all levels of Japanese rugby right now there is a Tongan who is one of the best players in the team. What is obvious watching these Tongans is they are clearly not chosen by random. These are outstanding talents that High Schools or Universities in Japan must be scouting, in virtually every case from either Tonga College or Tupou College in Nuku'alofa.

Not only does there seem to be a larger amount of Tongans moving to Japan, but increasingly more coming over to High Schools at a very young age too, plus of a higher standard than those before as well. There were no Tongans in Japan's U19 team 5 or 6 years ago and there was only Holani in the senior team. It is unclear whether this increase is just down to University sides scouting more Tongans or if this is a more national team orientated project player type scheme from higher up at the JRFU.

No doubt some of these players have the potential to be major players for Japan in the future. However seeing Tatafu in particular, along with Makisi and Fifita, basically carry Junior Japan to victory over Tonga A in the Pacific Challenge it does raise the question. How do Tongans feel about this?

GIF: Saia Fifita and Tevita Tatafu smash past Tonga A defenders en route to a try
Whilst Tongans who move to Japan do not seem to be prevented from playing for the Ikale Tahi. In past years we have seen Emosi Kauhenga and Lotu Filipine (both Daito Bunka University) play at the 2007 World Cup for Tonga, and last November Sione Vailanu (Asahi University) and Shinnosuke Tu'umoto'oa (Daito Bunka University) both made their debut (although in general Tongan selectors over the years seem slow to pick players based in Japan). When the option arises, as we saw with Mafi in 2014, and may be about to see with Saumaki in the future, players have tended to opt for Japan. Tonga are certainly losing some highly impressive young talent to Japan right now.

Full list of players to have moved from Tonga and gone on to represent Japan
Nofomuli Taumoefolau
Daito Bunka University
Hopoi Taione
Daito Bunka University
Sinali Latu
Number 8
Daito Bunka University
Sione Latu
Number 8
Daito Bunka University
Lopeti Oto
Daito Bunka University
Luatangi Vatuvei
Daito Bunka University
Touriki Mau
Daito Bunka University
Christian Loamanu
Saitama Institute of Technology
Katoni Otukolo
Saitama Institute of Technology
Ryu Koliniasi Holani
Number 8
Saitama Institute of Technology
Piei Mafileo
Full Back
Nihon University
Toetu’u Taufa
Nihon University
Amanaki Mafi
Number 8
Hanazono University
Ataata Moeakiola
Tokai University
Tevita Tatafu
Number 8
Tokai University
Faulua Makisi
Tenri University
Mifiposeti Paea
Saitama Institute of Technology
Amanaki Lotoahea
Hanazono University
Fetuani Lautaimi
Number 8
Setsunan University
Sione Teaupa
Ryutsu Keizai University
Asaeli Valu
Tighthead Prop
Saitama Institute of Technology
* Three other Tongan born players have also represented Japan. Nataniela Oto (Daito Bunka University), Sione Vatuvei, Uwe Helu (both Takushoku University). However they are not listed as they all moved to Japan from New Zealand not Tonga.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

The worst of the 2018 Rugby Europe Championship

Unfortunately this year has not been a good one for European international rugby's annual second tier tournament the Rugby Europe Championship. Even though many of the issues have been apparent for some time in 2018 they all came right to the fore. Here is a rundown of the worst of the tournament.

Another predictable and underwhelming Georgian Grand Slam

The Georgian grip on the trophy grows ever firmer as years go by. Whilst over the first 14 seasons of the tournament since it began in 2000 the Lelos won the annual tournament 8 times, only 3 were Grand Slams. More recently over the past 5 seasons they have won 4 Grand Slams, the sole hiccup a one point loss in Bucharest last year.

In years such as this one where their closest rival Romania have to travel to Tbilisi the Georgian Grand Slam has now become very predictable, with the Lelos not having lost at home in this competition since way back in the opening round of the 2004 season against Portugal.

However despite such a strong record in this competition. Georgia still persistently struggle to cut loose and amass points tallies that do justice to their superiority over clearly overmatched opposition. Time and time again we see a dominant pack and plenty of possession, but an infuriating amount of sloppy passes, offloads, and handling errors.
Image result for Georgia Spain 2018
Georgia still frequently struggle to
accumulate good margins of victory
up against far weaker opponents

Only beating Spain's reserves 23-10 was not at all a good result and it is hard imagine any of Georgia's similarly ranked opponents (Japan, Tonga, Italy, USA etc) labouring to such a scoreline. Even worse was their first half against a hopeless Germany side where they only managed 19 points. That was in fact the lowest points tally the Germans conceded in a half of rugby in the entire tournament.

Milton Haig has often talked of his attempts to broaden Georgia's attacking play. Whilst there may have been some success in this regard at junior level, at senior level there is still seemingly little breakthrough and their ability to create and clinically finish try scoring opportunities has shown only minor improvements. The fact yet again forwards outscored backs and props outscored centres or wingers in this tournament doesn't really show much evidence of successful expansion of Georgia's game.

Even though they keep winning, this tournament does not frequently get the best out of Georgia, they will need to play a lot better if they are to get good results on their challenging upcoming June tour.

Understrength teams and sacrificed matches

Whilst it was totally understandable with the priority being securing RWC qualification. It was still not a great look for the tournament to see Spain after they having beaten both Russia and Romania play Georgia with their reserves.

Even though their chance of winning may have been slim, this was still both what looked like at the time being a contest for the title, and an opportunity for Spain to test themselves against the highest ranked opponent they get to face. But they opted not to give it their best shot even though in the end they lost by a respectable scoreline.

Then there was Belgium who struggled to field their best team throughout the tournament. This was especially true away from home where they were hammered 47-0, 48-7, & 62-12 by Georgia, Russia, and Romania. The latter being the worst of those efforts where the Diables Noirs fielded almost a complete reserve team which only included 3 players who remained in the starting XV the following week against Spain (the only match of the tournament they were completely at full strength).

Overall the Belgians used 46 players over the five matches, that's a huge amount and more than anyone else this year in either the Rugby Europe Championship, 6 Nations, or the Americas Rugby Championship. It was also the highest amount of players used by any team in a single season in the tournament for over a decade.
Image result for Belgium rugby
Belgium used a huge 46 players over
the tournament and fielded weakened
teams in all their away matches

Key players for them such as tighthead prop Maxime Jadot, scrum half Julien Berger, or centre Jens Torfs only played two out of the five matches in the tournament. It is far easier said than done with availability with clubs not always easy, but for Belgium to start to make more progress in getting consistent results and start rising from the bottom end of the table they will need to find a way of establishing a more stable selection.

Even in the Americas Rugby Championship, where travel is tougher, there are similar issues with release of European based players, and teams usually not absolutely full strength. There has never been teams virtually surrendering matches with nearly entirely changed XVs like Belgium did in Romania or Spain did in Georgia. Obviously we would never see it in a Tier 1 competition either.

Then of course talking of weakened teams then there is Germany who are a different issue altogether ...

The total collapse of Germany

Undoubtedly one of the worst things about this year's Rugby Europe Championship. Almost as quickly as their rise in 2016/17 with wins over Portugal, Uruguay, then most shockingly Romania. Germany tumbled back down following a dispute between the DRV and their former backer Hans-Peter Wild, an employer of a sizeable percentage of their squad who have since become unavailable.
Image result for Germany Spain rugby
With an average scoreline of 72-7
Germany this year were the worst
team in the tournament's history

The result of this dispute has been that Germany this year fielded a incredibly weak team (including 19 different debutants) that was the worst in the tournament's history. They were thrashed in every single game with an average scoreline of 72-7 and losing margin of 65 points, surpassing Ukraine's tournament record 61 points set in 2005. They also had nearly broken the record for most points conceded in a season with a game to spare.

There have been some very bad teams at the bottom of the REC in the past. From 2000 to 2012 the Netherlands, Ukraine, Czech Republic, and Germany the first time they were promoted, were all on the end of some heavy beatings. It had seemed after 2013 when Belgium and then an improved Germany were promoted those days would be behind us. In 2017 Belgium's average losing margin was 17 points, the lowest in the tournament's history of any team that had lost all their games. But sadly Germany this year managed to bring them back in style.

Needless to say Germany's matches this year were a waste of time and not much fun to watch. Never has a side deserved relegation more but annoyingly they now may manage to stay in the tournament for another year thanks to a row over ineligible players.

It is unknown how long their current dispute will go on for, but hopefully they will get some time to sort it out whilst in a lower division rather than remain and get thumped in every match of this tournament.

Empty stadiums in Romania

In general somewhat improving crowds were one of the few positives of this year's tournament. Georgian rugby continues to attract incredible attendances even for REC matches, plus we saw Spain pack their stadium for first time in many years and the sport reach the front pages in the news, whilst Russia got 11,000 for their opening match in Krasnodar which was also their largest crowd in the REC for a long time, and Belgium packed their little stadium and there are suggestions they could be ready to move to some bigger venues for some matches.
The crowd for Romania vs Russia

The exception though was Romania, whose stadiums looked depressingly empty. There are a few factors behind this. There was freezing weather, which as well as putting off fans from going, also meant Romania had to move to facilities in Cluj (which has few rugby fans) where there is a heated pitch and prevent any risk of a match being cancelled. However what looked like 150 fans (official figures claim 1,500) in a 30,000 stadium is not a great look.

Poor attendances and declining popularity for the sport in Romania has been concern for a while. Sadly it is hard to see what could spark some energy into the sport there as we saw happen in Spain.

Refereeing shambles

For years this tournament has usually been treated to low rank Pro14 referees or rookies from England or France. This has often not come with great results and this year the tournament got under way with Frank Murphy and his touch judges delivering one of the worst missed calls you could ever see to deny Russia a try in a close match with Spain.

Later on Russia vs Georgia, a fixture that is one of the most noteworthy rivalries in the competition, got a young English referee who had not yet done a single Premiership game. Even the Georgia vs Romania Antim Cup rivalry, usually the fixture that decides the tournament got one of the most inexperienced referees in just his first season in the Top 14.

The tournament is essentially viewed as a training experience for the most junior refs and largely just from 6 Nations countries (it should be noted unlike the Americas Rugby Championship there are remarkably few opportunities in this tournament for development of any referees from Tier 2 nations). Understandable perhaps for some of the less consequential fixtures, but for the most important matches in the tournament it is not great.

Also in one of the rare occasions that a referee from a Tier 2 nation did get an opportunity, in Vlad Iordachescu, it of course came at the worst possible time and ended up in total disaster.

Decisions were also further not helped by the lack of TMO in all the games. There has been some passing of the blame for this amongst each Union, but it is something that really ought to be sorted especially for the most important and evenly contested matches. Again the Americas Rugby Championship is ahead of the REC in this aspect as well.

Aftermath of Spain's loss to Belgium

This tournament rarely gains a great deal attention in the mainstream rugby media, but thanks to Spain's loss to Belgium and the ensuing aftermath it certainly did. Although of course not for the right reasons.
Image result for Spain Belgium rugby
The aftermath of Spain's defeat gave
the REC more media coverage than
ever before but not in a good way

No need to revisit in great detail what has already been gone over numerous times. But in short after suffering an upset loss, unfortunately the Spain team went a bit nuts and chased the referee off the pitch, and their behaviour on social media in the week afterwards continued in much the same vein.

There was no calm review of the match, but an outrage mob attempting to push a narrative that this was a clear conspiracy to rob Spain in order to get Romania to the World Cup (it wasn't).

Completely fabricated penalty stats were repeated over and over to try and back this up, angry amateur videos were circulated with complaints such as the ref "being slightly too slow to give a penalty" cited amongst the evidence that this was the most bias refereeing performance of all times, old irrelevant articles from Samoa were dug up amongst other things to push the narrative.

Whilst the FER promoted a hashtag #JusticeForSpainRugby demanding a rematch, of course not long after they had just beaten Russia by virtue of a calamitous refereeing blunder and a match winning try created by an allegedly ineligible player. And another one #JusticeForRugbyValues only days after their own players had just abused and chased the referee from the pitch (and who were also still - again most ironically - calling him a "thug" in the week after as well as promoting fake news penalty counts). The hypocrisy and lack of self awareness here was astounding.

Those who pointed out the fact that the refereeing performance was not really the equivalent of Paddy O'Brien vs Fiji in 1999, or the penalty stats many were justifying their outrage upon were in fact exaggerated, and offered the far simpler explanation for the result which was that Spain were not good enough on the day were accused of being "Romanian" or "anti-Spanish".

Overall this was an utterly embarrassing episode for both Rugby Europe, who totally brought this situation upon themselves, and for Spain with their completely over the top tantrum afterwards.

The ineligible player fiasco
Image result for Victor Paquet rugby
Victor Paquet is one of a handful
of players with eligibility question
marks that has put into doubt the
final results of this year's REC

As the furore from the Belgium/Spain match died down a new controversy emerged. Belgium were found to have fielded an ineligible player in Victor Paquet against Germany. Soon after we discovered Romania's Sione Faka'osilea had played 7s for Tonga some years back. Then the next day it was pointed out Spain had two players in Mathieu Bélie and Bastien Fuster who were tied to France through matches with their U20s, plus had previously fielded Fabien Grammatico, a former France 7s player, against Germany back in 2015. There may still be more. It seems substandard checking in this area may have been going on for quite some time.

So half the teams in the tournament have fielded players with ineligibility clouds hanging over them. The consequences of this are still to be determined. There may be loopholes we are not aware of, or teams could possibly simply be let off lightly.

But one thing it could mean in a possible worst case scenario all those three teams get disqualified from the RWC with Russia and Germany the only ones left standing to progress further.

This would basically mean the entire past two years of RWC qualifying in this tournament will have ended up being a waste of time. The RWC would not get the strongest possible competitors from the REC directly qualifying, whilst the worst ever team in REC history would progress and be a gift to every opponent in the repechage playoffs. Hardly an ideal scenario for the tournament.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Referee was not to blame for Spain's failure in Belgium

Rarely has a Rugby Europe Championship match generated as much discussion as the recent encounter between Belgium and Spain. Unfortunately of course not for positive reasons and what was a stupid situation to begin with and received just as much ill informed comments afterwards. So it is worthwhile going over a few things here.

First of all something everybody agrees on. The decision from Rugby Europe not to alter the referee was an incredibly stupid one. The potential for this controversy to arise could have been quickly averted had Rugby Europe acted similarly to the 6 Nations when attention was brought to the fact Marius van der Westhuizen had spent time in England training sessions over the week.

The perception of a bias was so obviously in the minds of the Spanish right from the start. They had already complained before the match, and it only took about 5 minutes and the first couple of decisions to against them for them to lose their composure, start to get irritable and unable to accept the referee's calls as being made in good faith.

This was easily foreseeable and easily preventable. It would have been quite simple and made total sense to change the match officials lineup to one both teams were happy with. Basically everyone agrees on this points and Rugby Europe have come in for some deserved criticism.

However many of the other responses to this match have also been completely wrong.

First of all from some of the Spain players. There have been reports of verbal abuse towards Vlad Iordachesu over the course of the match (which is not hard to believe) and at the end of the match several players then became physically aggressive and disgracefully chased the referee off the pitch.

Those were ugly scenes rarely seen in rugby and completely unacceptable. A few of players involved (namely Pierre Barthéré, Guillaume Rouet, Lucas Guillaume) may face sanctions for this. Also to see the FER promote #JusticeForRugbyValues after that incident or Lucas Guillaume call the referee "a thug" is ironic considering their behaviour.

After the match many in Spain have not calmed down about this either and gone to great lengths to try and find anything (even digging up articles from the Samoa Observer which proves nothing other than the characteristic incompetence of the Samoan Union) to promote the idea of a Romanian conspiracy against them.

Firstly there are fabricated statistics claiming the penalty count from the match was either 24-4 or 28-8 against Spain which have been floated about and repeated by numerous players on social media.

Now 24 penalties against one side in a single match let alone 28 is basically unheard of. If those stats were true then they would indeed be such an outlier to raise eyebrows and certainly create some suspicion of highly odd and unusual officiating worthy of further investigation.

However those stats are not correct. The actual penalty count was 18-8 against Spain. Still a very high number for one team to concede in a match but not unprecedentedly so. Nevertheless the fabricated stats have still been repeated in some media reports to try and promote the idea of a conspiracy.

Then came the angrily titled amateur videos running through the performance from Iordachescu. One of which now has well over 100k views, has been shared by several on the Spain team, and reportedly being used by FER to back up their complain about the refereeing performance.

Now to clarify, I am not of the opinion that Iordachescu had a great game, nor did I even rate him particularly highly as a referee before this game. There were mistakes including a couple of ridiculous breakdown penalties given to Belgium with tackler not releasing or not supporting weight. He did not officiate the mauls well throughout. A clear high tackle missed.

However we see mistakes like these in professional games every single week. Often from referees with much bigger reputations as well (a look through Nigel Owens' performance in the match between Exeter and Montpellier earlier this year would result in a much longer video).

This isn't to excuse any errors or claim the ref was perfect, but let's remember what is being alleged here is that this was a display by Iordachescu of some of the most unusually incompetent and crooked refereeing ever seen in order to single handedly cost Spain the match. It is this claim that simply does not hold up.

Among the complaints in a video titled "Critical Review of Referee in Belgium vs Spain - Incompetence, Inconsistency and Integrity" from a video gamer who analyses what is supposedly "one of the worst performances I have seen in any form of rugby".

- He missed a knock in a tackle that wasn't at all obvious and had no effect on the game.
- He should have ignored a lineout throw that wasn't straight as it wasn't "incredibly not straight".
- He played a penalty advantage too long.
- He didn't "set his standards from the start" so had to correctly penalise Spain for dissent (?!).
- He was to slow to award Spain a scrum penalty.
- He didn't give a yellow card for a deliberate knock on.

This hardly constitutes evidence of complete daylight robbery and "one of the worst most bias performances ever seen in the history of rugby" to rank alongside Paddy O'Brien Fiji vs France 1999 World Cup, or Bryce Lawrence and Craig Joubert at the 2011 World Cup, or loads of George Clancy matches (for example Wales vs Argentina 2009) in terms of refereeing awfulness.

Nevertheless Spain have convinced themselves and many others who have hopped aboard a bandwagon of outrage that it is a fact Iordachescu single handedly cost them the game and their place at the World Cup. There are numerous figures in the game who almost certainly didn't watch the full game who are now asserting this with almost complete certainty.
Belgium vs. Spain - Rugby World Cup 2019 Europe Qualifier
Reality though is simply that Spain did not perform to the level they needed to. This explanation may not be as an exciting for the media or the Twitter mob but that is what happened.

In a match played on a narrow and muddy pitch on a freezing cold day. Belgium kept hold of possession far better, and exposed Spanish weaknesses, especially at scrum (which was the source of 5 penalties conceded) or in a lack of really effective heavy duty close quarter ball carriers (both elements of the game that are essential to winter rugby on heavy pitches), defended well and were deserved winners.

Spain should start to take more responsibility for their defeat. It was not the referee who was pushing them about at scrums or losing collisions, or who for the first 20 minutes of the second half could barely manage more than three phases without losing the ball, or missing penalty kicks at goal etc.

Friday, 23 February 2018

Sunwolves foreign born selection leaves many Japan fans unhappy

Image result for Jamie Joseph sunwolves
As RWC 2019 draws closer we are reaching the part of the 4 year cycle where teams are narrowing down their selections ahead of the tournament. In the case of Japan with the delayed arrival of Jamie Joseph along with the reported burnout and loss of motivation amongst some of their previous RWC squad has resulted in higher turnover of players than anticipated and seen them about 6-12 months behind in building their squad compared to their equivalent position 4 years ago.

Finally last November they started to assemble more of a settled squad. Now with Jamie Joseph in charge of the Sunwolves they are aiming to catch up on lost time and this year's Super Rugby side resembles a lot more what the Japan national side may look like this year.

However this has made some unhappy in Japan as Joseph's selections seem to indicate the distinct possibility he will be heading towards the run up to the 2019 home World Cup with several recently qualified residency players from overseas.

This is far from unusual in Japan. Tongan born players who moved to University have long been part of Japanese rugby as far back as Nofomuli Taumoefolau and Sinali Latu at the inaugural World Cup in 1987. In the professional era starting with the 1999 World Cup side led by Andrew McCormick and in every tournament since Japanese sides have also featured New Zealand born players who have qualified via residency after spending three years in the domestic league. Something that is certainly not unusual in international rugby for several other nations too.

Over the years Japan has always got more criticism than most for fielding foreign born players. Partly because players from New Zealand stand out a lot more in the Japan team than they do in for example Scotland or Ireland. But also because foreign born selections have often been highly unpopular and a cause for disgruntlement amongst Japan's own fans as well.

Few complain of a foreign born presence when the team is successful as they were at the most recent World Cup under Eddie Jones. But after failure to meet expectation at a World Cup as happened in 2011 under John Kirwan there was a backlash against heavily New Zealand influenced selection. The 1999 World Cup New Zealanders are not remembered particularly fondly by Japan fans either.

There are a number players involved with the Sunwolves this year who will be qualified for Japan by 2019 after three years of Top League. These include Ruan Smith and Hencus van Wyk at tighthead prop. Grant Hattingh and Sam Wykes at lock. Willie Britz and Lappies Labuschagné in the back row (in addition to Wimpie van der Walt who made his international debut last November).

Plus in the backs Gerhard van den Heever and Robbie Robinson (also in addition to Will Tupou and Lomano Lemeki who also both already capped by Japan).
Image result for Grant Hattingh
Grant Hattingh is set to become the
tallest ever player to represent
Japan later this year

At least some of these players have clearly been selected with their qualification for the national team in mind. In certain cases this will shore up some weak areas and be a good asset to the team. Currently Japan have very little strength at tighthead prop and struggled to find genuine second row replacements for Luke Thompson and Hitoshi Ono. Any sensible Japan fans ought to acknowledge boosting depth in these positions is necessary.

Whilst in the back row Japan already have an excellent trio in Himeno, Leitch, and Mafi as first choice. Professional rugby squads rely upon having plenty of depth and it's also possible the South African trio of Britz, Labuschagne, and Van der Walt may be useful options either for the bench or to raise the standard of competition in the extended squad.

But the far more controversial selections are in the backs where Japan has a lot more talent currently and some of the country's best young players have been left out.

Under John Kirwan Japan had foreign born players first choice throughout the core of the backline at 10-12-13-15. Under Eddie Jones this was reduced as he had just Male Sa'u at 13 in his starting XV that beat South Africa. It seems Joseph, who selected just two Japanese born backs in his first Sunwolves lineup, may be leaning more towards the Kirwan selection.
Image result for Takuya Yamasawa
Takuya Yamasawa is a notable
omission in Joseph's Sunwolves
squad having impressed with
Panasonic last season

There is a difference between Kirwan and Joseph though in that the former had far weaker backline talent to select from.

Amongst those outside Joseph's Sunwolves squad includes Takuya Yamasawa, Yoshikazu Fujita, Rikiya Matsuda, or Yusuke Kajimura (Ryuta Noguchi was a very late call up to the squad) who are all highly regarded talents in Japan. Whilst some of the foreign born backs in the Sunwolves squad are journeymen or not particularly well known and played all the recent domestic season with some of the worst teams in the Top League or even in the Japanese second division. Van den Heever's selection over both Fujita or Shota Emi for instance is one that is not popular with Japanese fans.

In previous years Japan fans who complained of foreign presence were quickly given a reality check in the periods of 2000-02 or 2004 where selection policy briefly changed not to pick many residency players and results duly suffered badly.

Now though there is generally more belief in the Japanese talent available and thus more pressure on Joseph than his predecessors. If his selection is going to have a heavy foreign presence he must deliver quickly results for Japanese rugby. If not there will be many unhappy Japan fans calling for change.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

What has happened to Marc Dal Maso's Japan scrum?

One of the most remarkable things over the last RWC cycle was the turnaround Japan managed to achieve at set piece especially in the scrummaging department. In the November of Eddie Jones' first year in charge he took his team to Romania, and although his side won, they were totally crushed at scrum. Immediately afterwards Jones resolved to improve it and went and recruited former France hooker Marc Dal Maso as scrum coach which turned out to be a masterstroke.

Under Dal Maso the Japanese quickly managed to turn a meagre scrum into statistically one of the most efficient in the world over 2014/15. All this was done with largely the same personnel too.

Aside from one match where they got completely demolished in Georgia, over that period the Japanese won 116 of 117 scrums in matches against top 20 opposition. The scrum became strong enough to dominate sides like Canada, USA, Fiji, Samoa or Maori All Blacks, famously shunted Italy about, and held up well against South Africa. Previously in 2011 under John Kirwan they couldn't exploit a weaker scrum such as Canada and it played a big part in losing them a close game against Italy.

GIF: In 2011 Japan's scrum failed badly and cost them their match with Italy, but by 2014
when they next met the Cherry Blossoms scrum had been transformed by Marc Dal Maso.

According to Eddie Jones this improvement was down to "changing the mindset of the players", intense "40 minute full on scrum sessions" that he claimed was double that of most sides, and "finding our competitive edge at the scrum" by scrummaging "very lowly and very cohesively".

Video: Eddie Jones remarks upon improvements to Japan's scrum at a press conference in 2014

It was one of the most astonishing turnarounds ever seen. However unfortunately since Jones and Dal Maso's departure after RWC 2015 there has been no legacy left behind. Under Jamie Joseph the scrum has reverted back closer to how it was before. This struggle is borne out quite clearly in the statistics (excluding matches with South Korea and Hong Kong).

Over 2015 Japan played 11 tests, won 83 from 84 of their scrums (99%), won 24 penalties to 18 conceded (+6), and the scrum directly contributed over three converted tries worth of penalty points including a penalty try against Samoa at the World Cup.

Over Jamie Joseph's time in charge so far Japan have played 10 tests, won 47 from 60 scrums (78%), won 9 penalties to 21 conceded (-12), with zero penalty points gained from it. In matches between top 20 nations over this period, Japan have had the lowest scrum success rate of any side but Namibia (64% over just two tests vs Uruguay). Under Eddie Jones and Marc Dal Maso they had the highest since the new laws came in 2013.

Japan scrum
(excluding Asian Championship)
Win %
(Own feed)
Direct pts
(under Eddie Jones)
(83 from 84)
(under Jamie Joseph)
(47 from 60)

The stats don't tell you everything. Under Jamie Joseph Japan have had overall more challenging opposition compared to under Eddie Jones with 6 of his 10 matches against Tier 1 nations, plus another two against relatively strong scrums in Georgia and Romania, and none against North Americans. However you could also add Japan's scrum success has dipped markedly in the context of a general worldwide trend since the RWC where it has become much rarer for scrums to be won against the head.

Anyway whilst the stats prove the point to a certain degree, you need just watch the games to see the scrum has been a significant weakness that has been hurting Japan badly.

GIF: Japan's scrum struggled badly against Ireland in June

Against Romania, Ireland, and Australia last year, Japan lost 8 scrums of their own put in. Of those 6 were penalties, three of which led to tries conceded right from first phase off the next lineout, plus another was a penalty advantage early in the first test against Ireland which was then just gathered to run off early breakaway score.

Penalties conceded on opposition put in have hurt them at crucial times too. Japan did well to concede a relatively low amount of scrums against France, but there were still penalties from those scrums that allowed the French to clear their lines and also kick an important 3 points in that match. For the Romanians in June, the scrum was also an effective way to claw their way back into the match in the second half, even though again there were not that many in the game.
Kensuke Hatakeyama (left) &
Hiroshi Yamashita (right) were
mainstays under Eddie Jones but
disappeared under Jamie Joseph

It is hard to see the same turnaround that happened under Eddie Jones occurring again though. Partly down to Jamie Joseph not putting as much emphasis on it as his predecessor, but also down to personnel and a lack of options he has especially at tighthead prop.

The entire group of tightheads used under Jones in 2014/15, including the experienced duo of Kensuke Hatakeyama and Hiroshi Yamashita, plus also the younger Shinnosuke Kakinaga have all disappeared from the international setup. None of them featured at all in 2017.

On the face of it this sounds a bit confusing as none are too old for the next World Cup, and both Hatakeyama and Yamashita have plenty of experience both at international level plus having played abroad in the Premiership or Super Rugby, and were cornerstones of the most successful scrum Japan has ever had and you would think might be able to help.

But they along with a handful of others from the 2015 squad (Kosei Ono, Male Sa'u, Ayumu Goromaru, Michael Broadhurst), for various reasons have simply faded and now appear to be basically finished in Japan colours. Since the World Cup, Hatakeyama has gone from being an ever present at tighthead for Japan over 8 years to not even making extended training squads, to featuring in the Top League Dream XV for 6 consecutive seasons to now being third choice at Suntory Sungoliath.

More recently Heiichiro Ito and Takuma Asahara, both rated as the best tightheads in the Top League over the past two seasons, have been tried, failed to impress, and since been dropped. Meanwhile young scrummaging specialist Yoto Ioki, who has caught the eye with some recent performances for Toyota Verblitz, but he has somewhat of an old school physique and is presumably not suited for the sort of game Joseph wants to play and why he is limited to impact sub appearances for his club.

Video: Yoto Ioki comes on and dominates the Panasonic Wild Knights' full
international front row at scrum during the recent Top League semi final.

The current incumbent is Koo Ji-Won, who whilst may be a decent prospect and actually has done okay so far all things considering, he is still in his rookie season playing for Honda Heat in the Japanese second division and not a great deal can be expected of such inexperience against elite scrums.

With Asaeli Valu, who seems to be picked based more on play in the loose than at scrum, to come off the bench. Watching Valu (who also has relatively little experience with under 20 starts over 5 seasons with Panasonic Wild Knights despite being older at 28) scrum recently with Panasonic, alongside Japan's first choice loosehead and hooker, getting pushed around even at Top League level is not particularly encouraging for the prospects of the Brave Blossoms' scrum in 2018.
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Japan's Korean born prospect at
tighthead prop Koo Ji-Won

Joseph looks set to stick with Koo and Valu in the lead up to the RWC. Although should struggles at scrum continue it is very possible that South African tighthead Ruan Smith, who qualifies on residency just before the RWC, may have a strong chance of making the team as a quick fix for the tournament. His Sunwolves selection certainly suggests that may be an option Joseph is considering.

For all the problems the scrum has faced though, it could have been a lot worse if not for one thing (as noted above) that Japan have done very effectively under Joseph which is simply limiting the amount of the scrums there are in a game.

In November, France were limited to just 4 scrums with their own put in and had zero in the first half. In June against Romania, up until a small cluster of 3 scrums in the final couple of minutes with the result already decided, there had only been 6 scrums in the match and were just 2 in the first half. Whilst in 2016 against Georgia, the match was limited to only 7 scrums, which was a great effort by Japan and well below the international average of 13 per match and a significant factor behind their upset win.

To realistically beat top 8 sides and have a chance of reaching RWC quarter finals though, Japan can't get away with just damage control. Massive improvement in this area is required which we will see if they can make over 2018 where they will face a series of very challenging scrummaging opponents (Italy, Georgia, New Zealand, and England).