Whilst the Home Nations were off touring the Southern Hemisphere giants, the so called “Tier 2” Pacific Nations Cup was under way and serving up some fantastically competitive Rugby.
Japan took the Asia Pacific title beating Canada and the USA away in two captivating games to take the B pool of the competition.
Under Eddie Jones, Japan have made some interesting strides. For all who don’t know Jones is the enigmatic Australian coach who led the Wallabies to second place in the 2003 world cup and was technical adviser with South Africa in 2007.
Jones has a long history with Japanese Rugby, with Suntory and Tokai university and previous stints in the Japanese set up he has coached there on and off for over 20 years. As head coach he’s taken a team languishing somewhere in bottom half of the first double numbers in the world ranking and has got them playing some scintillating Rugby that is an absolute joy to watch. Importantly it’s also starting to produce some results and in the last 12 months (outside of the PNC competition) they have taken on Wales and Italy at home and dispatched both of them.
The temptation for a lot of coaches is to take a national team and impose their preferred pattern of play on them, but a really good coach takes stock of what his players strengths are and molds a teams attack around that. In the case of Japan, Jones has jettisoned the punch and spread methods used by former coach John Kirwin, and gone for a more traditional Japanese style fluid, skillful & fast paced game, relying on their fitness to see them home against bigger teams.
What I really like is that although they play in their traditional units and with a lot of structure they are looking to unlock the opposition defence with individual skills than brute force, for example in the contact zone they concentrate on ball presentation and a quick clear rather than staying on their feet and gaining momentum.
The Italy, Canada and USA games were good examples of this. Against two physically imposing but less technically adept sides they played the game at a breakneck pace avoiding contact at almost all costs. At times it’s like watching a pickup game of touch rugby. The ball is moved very wide very quickly with the occasional midfield carry, and when it is carried to the line it’s nearly always when there is a 1 vs 1. It is an attack strategy full of risk and reward in equal amounts with their all out attack ethos delivering some incredible tries, but leaking just as many.
It’s a game plan that is in some ways very similar to the New Zealand and Australian styles of play, almost a hybrid version, with Japan stretching a defence on primary ball and then playing back down the opposite channel. Their strike moves are full of dummy runners and like Australia they play a two line attack in the backs.
It’s intelligent rugby with the half backs Tanaka and Tatekawa running a tight ship. Tanaka manages the kicking game at 9 (I don’t think Tatekawa kicks the ball once in all three games), and Goramaru backs it up from 15 when in their own half.
Even when leaving their own danger zones they are looking at what their options are.
In Male Sa'u and Yu Tamura they have centers that are quick, skillful and powerful and able to react to the game as it unfolds in front of them. They are also both strong boys who along with Tatekawa are able to play right on the tackle line. If they have to head into traffic they use footwork and quick passes to find that 1 vs 1 and get past the contact, it’s not often the ball carrier heads into double tacklers. They aren’t really looking to gain momentum with phases in the same way england are – it’s not about targets for their pack, instead they are looking to move a defence around so quickly that they never have time to settle and they can exploit the oppositions transition defence.
So lets have a quick look at their attack strategy in the clips below – these clips are taken from the USA, Italy and Canada game
A few things to note before watching the video:
- superior 1 on 1 or 2 on 2 skills to their opposition.
- excellent execution (they are possibly one of the best passing teams in world rugby)
- Reactive Rugby: if the ball is quick, off the top or turn over ball, they play very wide and get the ball in the 13/15 channel quickly. If the ball is slow, a catch and set for example, they tend to run punch groups outside the 10 looking to generate speed.
- always look to move the ball before contact.
- run the risk of sacrificing possession for the chance to create that 1 vs 1 on the opposition outside backs (i..e they don’t mind being pushed to touch, they are looking to get around them, to do that they have to risk the touchline)
- exit strategies are similar to their attack strategy – box from 9 or move the ball to the 13/15 channel for the sweeper kick if the defence are drifting quickly – take the pressure off the 10.
- looking to move the big heavy packs around every time they have the ball even on executing an exit strategy.
- keep the ball in play, looking to utilise their superior fitness – lots of quick lineouts, and counter attacking.