YOKOHAMA, 10 Oct – Three years ago Japanese rugby was facing challenges.
Retirements, eligibility issues and the formation of the Sunwolves, a Japanese representative team in Super Rugby, meant the international squad had few chances to train together.
Japan head coach Jamie Joseph has since transformed the Brave Blossoms into one of the most improved teams in international rugby. But if Japan reach the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time, they must also thank netball fitness coach Simon Jones.
The revolution began in September 2016. Jones was strength and conditioning coach for the Southern Steel netball team in his native New Zealand, although he had previous experience coaching the All Blacks U20s at two World Cups.
He pitched his training philosophy to Joseph. Aware that Japan’s players, on average, are on the small side, Jones drew on Newton’s laws of motion to explain how, with the right preparation, they could punch well above their weight.
"My initial philosophy was (based around) an analogy of improving our power to weight," said Jones. "It's very basic physics. We used two bullets as an analogy. Two bullets travelling at the same speed that are the same weight do the same damage. If one can travel faster it carries more energy.”
Joseph bought into the plan. However, Jones quickly realised he had his work cut out with the squad of players he inherited.
"In my first test match, we had 15 debutants. It was a very green team for international rugby and high-performance training habits. The initial testing of that squad was not fantastic for an international team."
Work began in earnest, focusing on developing the players’ lower-body strength and overhauling their cardiovascular fitness.
"We stuck to the basics. There hasn’t been any magic bullet. We ran a lot. We tried to get our lower bodies as strong as possible.
"We utilised the Wattbike a lot for some really high lactate work to help induce more fatigue while the boys were doing their rugby work."
As focus switched to the World Cup this year, Jones was able to spend longer with the players. The squad worked across multiple high-intensity training camps in the heat and humidity of Miyazaki and the cooler conditions of Abashiri in Hokkaido.
"I brought in a lot of landing mechanics and footwork drills I had been using in netball for injury prevention and improved performance," Jones said.
"Some of our tight forwards had amazing strength already. They were good squatters.
"But they weren’t so great with balance and the ability to change direction, which is required of a modern-day rugby prop, especially with the style of game we wanted to play.
"We included balance, landing and jumping drills into our weekly programme to improve the athletes' potential to move their own body weight and become more agile.
"With Tony Brown’s attack plans, Scott Hansen’s ideas on line speed and collisions focused on defence, and Jamie's mentoring around our attitude and mindset, we've been able to create plans that suited what I was trying to do, which was make us the best movers at the World Cup."
The result is a level of relentless defensive aggression and physicality most teams cannot sustain for 80 minutes.
"The players' resilience and ability to get up day after day and keep soaking up what we were doing is credit to them," Jones said.
"It's been a three-year plan to build the players to tolerate the workloads we were targeting for this World Cup and our performance in that Ireland match wasn't an exception."