If anyone can get Japan to punch above their weight at the Rugby World Cup, it’s Eddie Jones, the grizzled former Wallabies coach looking to go out with a bang.
Jones, whose Australia side were beaten by England fly-half Jonny Wilkinson’s dramatic extra-time drop goal in the 2003 final, is set to step down after the tournament, having turned his players into gym rats to address their physical disadvantage.
Japan’s glass jaw has been exposed time and again at previous World Cups but 55-year-old Jones insists Asia’s top side can spring an upset and reach the quarter-finals in England.
“I’ve been lucky enough to go to the World Cup before with Australia and your only intention is to win the World Cup,” he told AFP in a recent interview.
“The team feels the pressure a little, which I don’t think is such a bad thing,” added Jones, who recently announced his decision not to sign a new contract with Japan. “Whilst they might struggle with it now, once they get to the World Cup we can use it to our advantage.”
The Japanese begin their punishing daily training at 5am in a bid to get a jump on their rivals and Jones employs scientific training methods to wring every last drop of energy from his players as he plots his giant-killing masterplan.
A shrewd operator, Jones, whose mother is Japanese, has instilled a sense of self-belief in Japan, underlined by a run of 10 successive wins last year that saw them break into the world’s top 10 for the first time.
Jones, whose first move after replacing former All Black John Kirwan in 2012 was to reduce the number of foreign players and get Japan playing more to their strengths, will need all his wiliness if his side is to negotiate a Pool B also involving South Africa, Samoa, Scotland and the United States.
Head coach of Australia between 2001 and 2005 — and a member of the coaching staff when the Springboks won the 2007 World Cup — Jones suffered a stroke in 2013 but made a full recovery and has overseen drastic improvement in the team’s fortunes since.
He has been instrumental working behind the scenes on Japan’s successful bid to enter a team in the 2016 Super Rugby competition, insisting Asia’s top rugby nation would be “climbing a mountain” without it as they look to strengthen the game before hosting the 2019 World Cup.
Never one to bite his tongue, however, Jones pulls no punches about the obstacles that remain for Japan with the country’s youth set-up still in disarray, blaming parochial short-sightedness for a string of disastrous results at under-20 level.
Jones led the senior side to a tournament record 121-0 win over the Philippines in the Asian Five Nations in 2013 but has a tough job to break down the perception of the Japanese as a soft touch among world rugby’s top echelons.
The memory of their record 145-17 World Cup defeat by New Zealand in 1995 stalks Japan at every World Cup.
Their latest challenge will prove a test of faith for Jones, who has zero tolerance for anyone not on board with his philosophies and sees only the opportunity to leave a lasting impact in his Japan swansong.