John Kirwan is the new coach of the Blues and I think it's a good choice. JK is what we want all of our retired sporting heroes to be: a gentle giant with a booming voice and heart of gold.
I was able to interview JK in 2010 when I was in Japan. We met at a cafe in central Tokyo, he was already there when I arrived and as he stood up I was suddenly turned into an excited 10 year old again. (Before reverting to a semi-professional journalist).
A few days earlier I had interviewed Eddie Jones, who was coaching a local Japanese team. The two coaches couldn't be more different. Eddie was fast, sharp and constantly thinking; JK was slower more thoughtful and slightly nervous, which I found weird considering he was the legend.
The site I wrote the story for folded (annoyingly before they could pay me) so here it is:
Eddie Jones is a brilliant world-renowned rugby coach. You know this. What you might not realise is that his brain is fast and never stops working. When we met he asks where in New Zealand I'm from. I answer "Wellington via Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty" he thinks for a second and then says "Ah! Taronga Bay". His initial mispronunciation makes me think he's got the wrong place but then he says "Glen Jackson's from there". We spend the next ten minutes talking about the skills of the Bay of Plenty legend.
I've come to Fuchu (half an hour from central Tokyo) to talk to Jones about the state of Japanese rugby. It's a topic that he knows quite well, especially as the current coach of the Suntory Sungoliaths.
"One of [the Japanese players] biggest strengths is following a gameplan. You set them up before hand and they will follow it to the death." The problem sadly, as Jones sees it, is the training the players receive at high school and even university.
The university level games are very popular, and like in American Football, can draw much larger and enthusiastic crowds than the professional game. Generally though, rugby is much less popular in Japan than baseball and football (soccer). So coaching is an issue, and Jones explained why.
"Here's what every team does: Inside their own 22 they kick; between the 22s it's a running game with little passing; inside the opposition 22 it's pick and go. And that's it, every team." But Jones is trying to change that.
"I put in place a new gameplan this year and made the boys use it during our pre-season games. Part of it was we were going to run it out of the 22. So what happens after the kick-off of the first regular season game? We catch it inside the 22 and we kick it. So it's going to take some time to get rid of those ingrained thought processes.
"We've got a halfback who's a really talented player, but when he came to us he could only benchpress 60kgs! He'd never done weights as part of his training. Now we've got him up to 160kg and I think he could make the Japanese team."
Jones has real plans to change Japanese rugby and he believes that the Japanese can be a real threat on the international scene. They have the talent they just need the right training.
Another man looking to make Japanese rugby better is John Kirwan. He's quite different to Jones in many ways. Still physically very big, he's also quiet and reserved. But like Jones he has clear goals for Japanese rugby; and not small goals either.
"We want Japan to be in the top ten nations of the world by the end of this World Cup. We also want to automatically qualify for the next World Cup by getting two wins. Then in 2015 we want to make the play-offs and when it's here [Japan] in 2019 we want to be in the final." Japan are currently 13th, with Samoa, Italy and Fiji in their way to the 10th spot (up from 19th when Kirwan took over). But also Scotland is at 7th and that's one of the teams Kirwan is targeting, because you can't reach the top ten without knocking off a European team. And the new test windows where Japan will tour against the northern teams can only help.
Kirwan thinks that the Super 15 isn't the way to go either; preferring New Zealand and Australia keep local competitions like the ITM cup and then break into a Heineken Cup style of competition with Japan and the Pacific Islands.
"Everyone talks about a Super 15 franchise [in Japan] but that means having one team from the 20 we have, so we'll piss off 19 of the biggest sponsors in the world and we'd have the focus on just one team."
Kirwan is focussed on one team though, and really one tournament: the 2011 World Cup. He wants the Japanese team to have the time of their lives. By that he means he wants the team to achieve their goals. And moreover keep the guys heads level in the "mecca of rugby" when playing the All Blacks ("how we can stop the defence leaking while they stand around watching the All Blacks play").
Next year's World Cup will make rugby a focus in Japan again and both coaches are looking to use that to their advantage. It will also be Kirwan's last year in Japan ("I've got a surfing trip lined up"), and I wouldn't be surprised if Jones took over, simply because their goals for the team are aligned. These are two rugby greats determined to see rugby's minnows succeed.
Some notes that didn't make the story:
- Eddie Jones bought me lunch. I bought JK coffee.
- During the interview JK pointed to a nearby apartment building (in Aoyama) and said he lived near the top. He then said, with the voice of an amazed kiwi in the big city: "it costs $8,000 a month!"
- As we left JK asked where I was heading, then gave exact instructions on how to get there. He even told me to walk down the platform so that when I got out of the train at the other end I'd be near the exit.
- On the subject of Japanese beer we laughed about the amount of foam served on the top. "I used to pour my old man's beers and if it had that much head I'd get a clip around the ears".
- In the email back and forth before the interview, JK sent me three emails using a total of 13 words. Now that's efficient.
- This article was written in 2010 and I totally nailed that Eddie was going to be the new Japanese coach (I guessed because he explicitly said "no").
The last time I saw JK was during the World Cup in Napier. Japan had just ended a disappointing campaign with a draw against Canada. He was sitting quietly taking the brunt of the Japanese reporters harsh questioning, while joking with the softballs from the New Zealanders.
I think he'll do fine, though by his own admission he'll be coming into an environment where everyone knows rugby, compared to one where it was the third or fourth sport. But I'm sure he'll handle the pressure.