Eddie Jones had just announced his team for Saturday’s match against Japan when he sat down to field questions, scanned the room and caught sight of Ayumu Goromaru in the far corner. To recap, Goromaru was the goal-kicking full-back when Jones led the Brave Blossoms to the 2015 victory over South Africa which put in motion his appointment as England’s head coach a few months later.
Jones’s eyes lit up when he clocked Goromaru – glorified in Japan to the extent there was a lifesize bronze statue made in his honour and a baby giraffe named after him at Hamamatsu zoo – before slipping into Japanese with his former charge, in the room doing broadcast work. Here was both a reminder of Jones’s relationship with the country and of how and when he entered into English rugby’s wider consciousness seven years ago. Owen Farrell was reflecting on it this week too, recalling how he was listening to “the Brighton Miracle” on the radio before dashing in the front door to catch the final few moments on television.
In the ensuing period Jones has maintained his close links with Japan. There was, of course the 2019 World Cup, where endorsements and promotional work were at times hard to avoid, so hot a commercial property was Jones, and he consults at Tokyo Sungoliath in his spare time. The Rugby Football Union has always insisted it is fine with that and Jones explains it away as fulfilling his constant love of coaching, bristling whenever the issue comes up. It surfaced again this week, however, when he was explaining the post-World Cup glow that took hold in Japan before Covid hit.
“Post-2019 I remember going to a game, as a fan because I am not allowed to do any consultancy work there because you guys hammer me all the time,” he said of attending “NEC v Suntory at the back of western suburbs of Tokyo. I had to get escorted out of the ground, I got absolutely mobbed. My wife had to come and get me. I was getting pinned against this sushi caravan and the fans were coming from everywhere.”
Japan, lest we forget, are in England’s World Cup pool next year. On Saturday, four Sungoliath players start for Japan with another two on the bench. The suggestion that there is a conflict of interest is anathema, however, to both the RFU and Jones and it should also be noted that John Mitchell, Japan’s current defence coach, has intimate knowledge of most of England’s squad. “They can see everything they want to see about us from the video, as we can see everything we want to see about them,” said Jones. “I have a fair bit of knowledge of Japanese rugby and Japanese players but it is not the coaches who play the game.”
Jones has only coached against Japan with England once before and though the ledger records a routine 35-15 win it was a significant staging post on the way to the 2019 World Cup. England were losing by five points at half-time and had been run off the park by Japan. Danny Care spent nearly four years in international exile afterwards, Zach Mercer and Alex Lozowski, who missed a crucial tackle, have never appeared for England since and players refer to it as the “Black Hole” game because a number of Test careers disappeared down it. Jones had to summon Farrell from the bench at half-time and though both were reluctant to discuss that match this week, you sense it was key in entrenching views for Japan 2019.
Saturday’s fixture could be of equal significance because Japan offer a clear and present danger all the while England must shake off their torpor before facing New Zealand and South Africa and affirm an identity which has been all too difficult to pinpoint lately. The players think that a fear of making mistakes is the problem and the mind goes back to a story from Jones’s days coaching Japan when he cancelled training because he sensed his squad were completing sessions out of a sense of duty. Unable to fulfil it, they looked like they had been sent “off to prison” according to Jones, who was seeking to remind them, “you’ve got to play sports with some love in your heart”.
England, on the field at least, have come across lately as if they could do with a bit more love in their hearts, with a bit more freedom of expression, less tension of both mind and body. “We need to break free and just go out there and be the players that we know we are,” said Maro Itoje. “It’s important for me to drive that. I know I play my best games when I’m that individual, where I energise the team through my actions.”
A response to last Sunday’s Argentina defeat is expected and Jones is right to say that there is something about the English psyche where being “under the pump” evokes a response. It was evident in the second Test against Australia in the summer, when Ellis Genge set the tone with a thundering carry through the Wallabies captain Michael Hooper. “Whenever an individual in the team makes a big tackle or carry, or a lineout steal, a positive action, people see it and think they want to be a part of it,” added Itoje. “Those actions only have a positive impact, in terms of the initial play and the mindset of wanting to get on the front foot.”
That may be so but should it stray into overeagerness, Japan have the perfect armoury with which to exploit it and in many ways they are the worst opposition for a team attempting to liberate themselves. That is the challenge England face, their autumn campaign hinges on whether they can rise to it.