Rugby World Cup: Japan's loss not an indicator that minnows' charge has been derailed

Japan's head coach Eddie Jones speaks to the media during the press conference.
Japan's head coach Eddie Jones speaks to the media during the press conference.PHOTO: REUTERS

After all the hype of Japan being the giant-killers at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, their 45-10 defeat at the hands of Scotland was a massive letdown for those neutrals who thought this to be the start of a Cinderella run for the Cherry Blossoms.

Looking at the latest spanking, it would seem that order was restored and that the second-tier rugby nations were back to their normal selves.

The big boys - Australia, New Zealand and England - were  on track and South Africa will be too if they beat Samoa on Saturday night (11.30pm, Fox Sports 2, Singtel TV Ch115 and StarHub Ch209). 

One can see how that train of thought can be easily boarded by fans and observers alike. However, if you actually caught the games, you would see a different train leaving the station - more bullet train catching up with the jet-propelled one rather than a steam engine.

Coming off a physically and mentally draining game is never easy at any level. The body is already bruised no matter what you do to recover.

Japan coach Eddie Jones, however, was playing down any excuses and swiftly dismissed talk of fatigue. Clearly, this was not going to be a problem for players who are used to twice-daily four-hour training sessions at club level, right?

Japanese rugby is very technical and structured to maximise their physical strengths. The tempo is high, and it is played to keep you guessing where the next point of attack will be.

On top of that, Jones has added technical nous and the power for his players to read what is in front of them. That was the difference on Saturday against South Africa.

On Wednesday, the Scots had clearly studied what Japan can do and their two late interception tries illustrated that. When Japan were on the attack, they used their forward runners as a decoy for the talented Fumiaki Tanaka to release the backs.

This is where the steam engine of the tier-two rugby nations has been upgraded to a bullet train. Japan have stepped up to a level where the world-class teams have to really study their plays to break down how to beat them. In other words, be fully prepared - or be surprised.

Not many remember that Japan once held the world record defeat at the 1995 RWC, when they lost to New Zealand by 17-145.  That defeat was a low point. From there, they looked to revamp.

The restructuring of their corporate club league to the professional Top League, where Japanese players play week in, week out with and against some of the best in the world certainly helped.

Roping in the sport's biggest names to mentor the national team, like All Blacks legend John Kirwan, has laid the foundation to close the gap. Jones has been lauded for his work with the team and that has been a big part in the transformation.

They almost got a win against Canada at the 2011 RWC but had to settle for a draw. Earlier this year, they beat the same opponents in the Pacific Nations Cup.

 I firmly believe that exposing players to regular high-level competition is a key part of a national team's success. Japan have no fewer than five players who have played in the elite Southern Hemisphere Super Rugby competition.

Big-game experiences were flaunted on the field against South Africa and Scotland. Playing at a higher level can only make you a better player.

Having great players around you, even in training, you are bound to pick up good habits. At the University of Sydney rugby club, there were six teams, or grades, which went from the top team full of professional and seasoned internationals down to the fifth team where I played.

It did not matter which outfit you were in - the first hour of each training was as one club. That meant the seasoned pros were training side by side with a youngster from Singapore and while few words were spoken, those sessions were a lesson in technique, hard work and humility.

Namibia were humbled 142-0 by Australia at the 2003 RWC and many were on the "it's going to happen again" bandwagon ahead of Thursday's clash with New Zealand.

While the Kiwis cruised to a healthy lead at the half, they had an almighty scare as the Namibians came back strongly and really slowed down the tempo. Namibia could be considered South Africa's 'B' side with all their players playing either in Europe, the South African provincial competition or the Super Rugby series.

Captain Jacques Burger was one of many standouts of the night and inspired his team the same way that Richie McCaw always does for the All Blacks. This befits a player well-respected in England after several seasons playing for heavyweights Saracens.

Gone are the days when sides like Japan, Namibia, Romania and Georgia came to the World Cup as amateur players facing giants.

From this World Cup so far, it does seem that the rest of the nations are building to be competitive on the field. All this makes for more interesting viewing.  

stsports@sph.com.sg

Note: Jonathan Leow, 35, was a Singapore national rugby player and previously coached the national Under-19 team. He also played for the University of Sydney and in the lower divisions in New Zealand. He is the vice-president of the Singapore Rugby Union and the organising committee chairman of the Singapore Cricket Club International Rugby Sevens.