Japan’s march to the World Cup last eight and their magnificent wins over Ireland and Scotland — not to mention South Africa four years ago — have been a huge, welcome wake-up call for the rugby world.
Not just in the thrilling way they play but also how rugby must now urgently restructure itself to accommodate emerging nations.
Japan have made many modern-day coaches look rather silly, demonstrating how playing at incredible pace with ball in hand and, most importantly, within the laws, can be not only the most effective but also the most exciting way to play.
Japan’s march to the World Cup last eight has been a huge wake-up call for the rugby world
Their tackling is low, textbook and disciplined as well as ferocious. Their handling is extraordinary. They rarely flirt with ‘flat’ balls and forward passes, much preferring legal passes at a more acute angle with receivers lying slightly deeper with devastating results.
They are disciplined in defence and don’t creep offside trying to nick metres. The box kick — which more than any other aspect of the game is killing it as a spectacle and is massively overused by the top nations — is anathema to Japan.
The box kick is the modus operandi of those who haven’t got the skill or imagination to execute anything more ambitious. Japan’s amazing fitness allows them to play the game differently from any team other than the All Blacks.
The amount of time the ball is in play has gone to a different level with Japan and it is compulsive watching for any sports fan.
They must be a complete nightmare to play against but just look at the sheer joy on the faces of players and fans alike when Japan take centre stage. I’ve even seen them compared with the great Brazil football teams in their approach and impact.
Japan produced a stunning display to become the first Asian team to reach the quarter-finals
Japan are a team who we have all fallen in love with and who can make rugby a better and more inclusive game — one with genuine worldwide appeal.
Yet all of this will count for nothing if the closed shop of world rugby does not allow Japan to progress immediately.
The cosy club of nations — with long-shared commercial interests — continue to hijack and carve up the game in their interests and to finance their domestic games.
This cannot continue. It is the Six Nations and Rugby Championship — essentially private companies formed by the unions — who dictate how the global game is structured, who is and who is not allowed in, when clearly this has to be the job of World Rugby, the governing body.
The Six Nations and the Rugby Championship want to perpetuate the status quo. They don’t want anybody else joining unless they increase the profitability of that club. That has to change.
They are a team that fans have all fallen in love with and who can make rugby a better game
Rugby has been shooting itself in the foot for too long. I am old enough to remember when an incredible touring Fiji team in 1970 destroyed the Barbarians at Gosforth — a Barbarians team that was basically the starting line-up of the Lions team of 1971.
They produced extraordinary rugby that would look spectacular even by today’s standards and briefly became a TV sensation.
But they were also treated like a novelty act with no place at rugby’s top table.
If there had been a World Cup in 1983, Romania might well have reached the semi-finals, but the old Five Nations would not contemplate them joining their tournament.
Samoa, throughout the 1990s, were a major team. But the established southern hemisphere giants were terrified of letting this small but mighty rugby nation grow too big and successful.
So there has been no place for them in the Tri Nations or the Rugby Championship and no place in Super Rugby.
Samoa are a rugby nation that have been prevented from growing too big and successful
They and other Pacific Island teams are viewed as being there to make up the numbers every four years.
Samoa have withered on the vine, Tonga receive no encouragement, while Fiji somehow keep going on pure, natural talent despite having so many players lured away. They are offered no pathway to compete on equal terms with others.
There is a better way — and it is promotion and relegation.
Division One would start off as New Zealand, Australia, Argentina and South Africa, but one of those should be relegated every year to be replaced by the winner of a feeder tournament that would consist initially of Japan, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa.
Ditto the Six Nations. I look at Georgia and I see loads of potential in their players and domestic infrastructure, but I also see a team beginning to mark time and I fear they might ‘do a Samoa’ and go into decline.
They are being offered no route to improve.
Georgia — and the likes of Russia, Spain and perhaps Romania if it is not too late — need the incentive of promotion.
Georgia are a team with loads of potential but they need the incentive of promotion
And let us be honest, some Six Nations countries would benefit from the kick up the backside the possibility of relegation might provide.
It would be a good thing for Italy who, compared with Japan, are so limited in their approach to the game.
Rugby must treat all nations equally. They must have an equal opportunity on the pitch and equal votes off the pitch. Their voice must carry equal weight and not be drowned out by the old boys’ club carving up the game.
The sport is changing and that change must be for the better. Look at the focus on concussion and dangerous tackles. It should have taken place 30 years ago when the athletes playing rugby started to become so much bigger and more powerful.
The same must apply with the organisation of Test rugby. World Rugby need to take control and give us a coherent structure within which all the world’s teams can operate and grow.
For a start let’s ditch this horrible Tier One, Tier Two, Tier Three demarcation.
The big boys will hate this but they need to readjust to the new reality. If we don’t change now — in the next couple of seasons — I fear Japan will become yet another lost opportunity.
And what a ridiculous, insane waste that would be.