‘Eddie ranted and said he was sick of our form’
Former Japan captain Toshiaki Hirose tells Daniel Schofield in Kobe about coach’s fear factor
Former Japan captain Toshiaki Hirose needs no reminder of the press conference where he was subject to Eddie Jones’s most notorious tongue lashings. The words remain seared on his soul. The date was June 20, 2012, and Japan had just lost 40-21 to a French Barbarians side. Jones’s rage levels were already bubbling somewhere between livid and incandescent. With his arms folded and his eyes narrowing into daggers, the head coach launched a blistering verbal assault on his squad. “I yelled and screamed at half-time like a schoolteacher, and in the second half we don’t have a go. Why?” Jones said, pausing just long enough to allow the interpreter to translate his vitriol. “The players don’t want to win enough. They don’t want to change enough. So I will have to change the players. I’m sick of it.”
The whole time Hirose shifted uncomfortably in his seat, unsure where to look or how to respond. Finally, Jones finished his character assassination of Japanese rugby and a question came to Hirose. He exhaled loudly and let slip a half-embarrassed smile. “I remember Eddie was very angry so I couldn’t say anything,” Hirose tells The Daily Telegraph. “I don’t think I was breathing. I think I just sighed and Eddie erupted.”
Erupt Jones did with all the ferocity of Mount Vesuvius. “It’s not funny, it’s not funny,” Jones said, interpreting Hirose’s reaction as a chuckle. “That’s the problem with Japanese rugby. Seriously. They’re not serious about winning. If they want to win, they have got to go out and physically smash people. We didn’t do it. I think I should probably leave.” On Jones went for a further 10 minutes.
Sitting in a coffee shop in Kobe, Hirose can afford to smile now but in a society where loss of face can have lasting consequences, his very public dressing down cut deep. “It’s a good memory now,” Hirose said. “It has made me famous. At that time, s---. For an hour, I felt really terrible. Then after one hour, I changed my mind and thought maybe he was not saying it to me but because he wanted to change Japanese rugby. It was not just to me, it was to the Japanese media and to everyone. He wanted to send a message.”
The current England head coach has since confirmed that his target was less Hirose than breaking the self-fulfilling culture that accepted valiant defeat. He was successful. Japan’s results picked up, leading to their defeat of South Africa at the 2015 World Cup and last Saturday’s toppling of Ireland.
“It was a turning point,” Hirose said. “On our 2012 tour to Europe we won against Georgia and Romania. The next year we beat Wales. That was when our results started to improve. Our mindset changed. For the previous 20 years we could not win at World Cups. We had a losing habit.”
That was far from the last time that Hirose would be on the end of Jones’s temper. His status as Jones’s first captain afforded him no protection, describing their relationship as around “30 per cent fighting”. “Sometimes Eddie shouted at me and I would think no more please, but it was a good experience for me,” Hirose says. “The reason he was angry was to make us raise our standards.”
There is a parallel between Jones’s appointment of Hirose as his initial Japan captain and selecting Dylan Hartley to be his first England captain. By his own admission, Hirose was far from the best player in the squad, but was the perfect conduit to raise their internal standards. “We had the same goal,” he says. “If we wanted to change the results we needed to change our processes.”
Then after three years, Jones told Hirose he no longer justified his place in the team – much like Hartley – and was replaced by Michael Leitch, who was more of a lead-by-example captain. Hirose remained in the squad, although he did not take the field in the 2015 World Cup. He and Jones are now good friends and recently shared drinks together on a social evening for England’s coaches in Kobe.
Hirose believes that Japan, now coached by Jamie Joseph, are still benefiting from the foundations that Jones laid, particularly with regards to fitness which was evident when they ran Ireland off
‘If the Japanese players and fans can all sing the anthem like Scotland do, it will really help’
the pitch in Shizuoka. There is a reason why some of his former team-mates referred to Jones as the “Devil”. Even Hirose shudders at the memories of undertaking four training sessions in a day: “5am rowing, cycling, fitness; 10am maybe weights; 2pm unit training; 6pm team training,” Hirose recalls. “We were very shocked. But during games we felt our fitness much better. Before Japan conceded a lot of tries in the last 20 minutes. After Eddie came in, it became the best 20 minutes.”
Hirose has an active role in promoting the World Cup starring in a popular rugby-based drama, No Side Manager, commentating and launching an initiative, Scrum Unison, which encourages Japanese fans to sing the national anthem. “I remember when I played in Scotland for Japan, all their players and all the crowd were singing the anthem very loudly,” Hirose says. “We thought that was fantastic. If the Japanese can sing together like that I think it will really help the team.”
Japan’s opening-night victory against Russia attracted 20 million television viewers. For the first time he can remember, Hirose saw children playing rugby at his local park. Asked how he thinks Japan is embracing the World Cup, Hirose says: “Better than I imagined. A lot of Japanese people are enjoying the games and atmosphere.”
Should Japan qualify for the quarter-finals, that will take the sport into a new stratosphere. As for the eventual winners, Hirose will not bet against England.
Eddie’s fear factor remains in place.
Frosty: Toshiaki Hirose and Eddie Jones address the media after the Barbarians defeat in 2012 and (left) facing New Zealand