Japan’s pack, once the butt of jokes and considered little more than a speed-bump on the way to the try-line by rugby’s elite nations, has been transformed and the man behind that dramatic shift allows himself a satisfied smile. Steve Borthwick, once the proud captain of Bath, Saracens and England, and a renowned student of the game, has turned the once pussycats into tigers who were able to devour Springboks and pull off the greatest shock in World Cup history.
Scotland will attest to Borthwick’s work, too, having been shoved back over their own line by the Japanese at Kingsholm last Wednesday, offering further proof that the world order may be changing as the so-called little guys fight back.
By recognising Japan’s limitations and injecting the likes of residentially-qualified Kiwi duo Michael Broadhurst and Luke Thompson, not to mention the outstanding Tongan-born No.8 Amanaki Mafi, Japan now have grunt to support their electric backs.
As forwards coach, Borthwick has been instrumental and he told The Rugby Paper: “You’ve seen our improvement in this World Cup. Nobody would have given us a chance in our first two games, so beating South Africa was phenomenal.
“We’re trying to play in a way that people enjoy – but size is obviously an issue so we’ve had to come up with a different strategy to cope. We won’t compete by kicking the ball in the air, but we can play a high-tempo game and being low sometimes helps at the scrum and breakdown.”
Of head coach Eddie Jones’s influence, below, Borthwick adds: “There are cultural challenges but what Eddie’s tried to do is build an environment around the team that puts pride into what we do, so that in turn the people in Japan can be proud of their rugby team.
“Whilst losing to Scotland in the manner we did was disappointing, to be one win from two going into next week is still a good position.”
Borthwick’s Japanese stint will end next month, when he is expected to be announced as forwards coach of Andy Robinson’s Championship outfit, Bristol.
He will look back on his time with the Brave Blossoms with pride, though, saying: “I’m really enjoying it and it’s been perfect for me really. To finish playing for Saracens one day (in 2013) and then next day be on a plane to join this team means I’ve never had to look back.
“To be thrown into this job and have the opportunity of preparing a team to be involved in a World Cup, with top-end games like this, is brilliant. I’ve learnt masses from Eddie and he’s phenomenal, not just in his rugby experience but the way he challenges you and gives you responsibility.
“To see the growth of the team, from us winning in Romania to beating Wales, Italy and now South Africa, has been great to be involved in.”
The fly in the ointment from a Japanese perspective is that not only are Borthwick and Jones both moving on, momentum could be lost if the country’s proposed new Super Rugby franchise fails to get off the ground as planned in 2016.
“It’s very important for Japan to have a Super Rugby franchise,” says Borthwick. “The difference between the national league there and international rugby is huge, so it’s vital to get that next level of competition for players to develop.
“If you could get that franchise in place, get the guys playing at that level and build for the 2019 World Cup, it’s crucial to the development of rugby in Japan.”
Japan have unfinished business at this World Cup, though, Borthwick adding mischievously: “We’ve got a big couple of weeks coming up and if we can get two more wins against Samoa and USA, that would really set the cat amongst the pigeons.”
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