RWC 2019: glaring flaws in Japan schedule remain
31-man squads a concern while nations like Samoa and USA have drawn the short straw
Japan players line up for the national anthem before a Pacific Nations Cup match against the United States on Aug. 10, 2019, in Suva, Fiji. Japan have the best schedule of the tier two nations. Photograph: Kyodo News via Getty Images
The greatest World Cup upset was instantly followed by its cruellest disadvantage. Rewind four years to Japan shocking the game, and reviving Eddie Jones’s coaching career, when toppling the mighty Springboks in Brighton.
This badly-needed giantkilling was punished rather than rewarded as four days later, having travelled 245 kilometres up to Gloucester, they lost 45-10 to a fully primed Scotland.
Such scheduling was not only grossly unfair but dangerous. By the time South Africa rattled New Zealand’s cage in a tense semi-final, after the Scots were done by another glaring flaw – the officials inability to use technology – in a quarter-final defeat to the Wallabies (forever remembered for the sight of referee Craig Joubert scarpering off the field), the Brave Blossoms were long gone.
“First game was Friday so play the first game on Thursday, move everything forward, spread the games a little bit more and you don’t have those turnarounds,” said Jones in 2015.
World Rugby have ignored this simple logic by maintaining a 43-day tournament.
Fast forward to September 28th when Ireland return to Shizuoka Stadium – where in June 2017 Joe Schmidt’s second string prevailed 50-22 – on full alert: this time Japan have avoided the short straw. In fact, they have been gifted every possible logistical advantage to keep the locals tuned-in come the knockout stages.
The hosts have eight-, seven- and eight-day turnarounds with the least road to cover during the Pool stages (635km). Other tier two nations, the USA and Fiji, are not so fortunate.
Schmidt has described Ireland’s six- and five-day turnarounds before facing Japan and Russia combined with managing 31-man squads as “very, very complicated”.
World Rugby did offer to increase squad numbers albeit with a catch; unions, unsurprisingly, turned down the option to cut backroom staff in favour of extra players.
So the cost factor prevails.
“You get an injury that maybe takes you out for two games but not the entire tournament,” noted Ireland captain Rory Best. “If you get a couple of those you have to make fairly harsh decisions.”
During the pool stages there will be 13 instances of four-day turnarounds. World Rugby are adamant they have attempted to address this issue but the numbers – rest days and distance of travel – remain an indictment of how this ultra-physical tournament is mapped out.
“Player welfare is World Rugby’s number one priority and Japan 2019 is a tournament with teams at its heart,” a WR spokesman informed The Irish Times. “The schedule has been developed in collaboration with unions following a full review of 2015 and includes significantly greater rest periods for emerging nations (tier two), especially ahead of matches against top tier opposition, than ever before.
“In Japan there will only be two occasions of four-day rest periods for emerging nations versus tier one opposition, compared with nine occasions in 2015 and only five periods of three-days rest for emerging nations versus five [we count eight] occasions for tier one nations.”
This raises more questions than answers. Like, for example, how Samoa are supposed to evolve from “emerging nations” status when forced to play Scotland, Japan and Ireland in a 12-day window? Why not level the playing field by taxing professional tier one squads with all the shorter turnarounds? Or, God forbid, take the advice of Eddie Jones and expand by even one day?
“Emerging nations such as Japan (20 days), Tonga and Namibia (both 18) are amongst the nations with the most rest days scheduled,” tournament organisers continued.
The All Blacks also have 18 rest days.
“It is worth noting that there is no change in injury profile between four-day and seven-day turnarounds and that the appropriate management of training load is key to injury-prevention as it is a significant driver of match injuries.”
Rugby administrators could learn from the ground zero knowledge offered by Ireland strength and fitness coach Jason Cowman: “When I started in Leinster, lads ponied up on Monday and they were ready to go. A couple of years ago, in the Test match window, it was a Tuesday before they had recovered. Now, it’s probably Thursday in the week after a Test match before they are ready to go.”
Players need a six-day turnaround. Minimum. But that is not the case at RWC 2019. The US Eagles have been dealt a horrible hand with only 14 rest days – the least alongside South Africa and Canada – while having to trek a total of 2,250km, starting with Kobe to Fukuoka in the five days between playing England and France, before facing Argentina in Kumagaya and Tonga in Higashiosaka, which is 544km travel during a three-day turnaround.
The nations with the greatest strength in depth – New Zealand (18 rest days but travelling 2,246km) and England (17 rest days, 2,147 km) – will struggle with their schedules but it makes no sense to inflict the worst disadvantages on Gary Gold’s American squad.
Fiji should be to rugby what Brazil is to football but we know why that has never happened (clue: check out the starting wingers in England, France, New Zealand and Australia). Drawn in Pool D alongside the Wallabies, Wales and Georgia, they must cover 2,275km with only 15 rest days.
In stark contrast, Japan’s schedule gives them the best opportunity to cause another major upset. They play Ireland after an eight day run-in following the tournament opener against Russia, a clean week to Samoa and another eight days before the expected do-or-die showdown against Scotland on October 13th.
They have clearly got their act together these past two years under Kiwi coaching duo Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown with recent victories over Fiji, Tonga and the US unveiling foreign power recruited via the now defunct residency law.
Amanaki Mafi was unable to travel to Fiji for last Saturday’s 34-20 victory over the US due to an ongoing assault charge in New Zealand but he’s been cleared to play at the World Cup. The Tongan is not alone as Joseph largely abandoned using native players in the second row and back row when recalling Luke Thompson (38) while James Moore (Australia), Uwe Helu (Tonga), Pieter Labuschange, Wimpie van der Walt (both South Africa) and Hendrick Tui (New Zealand) are expected to feature alongside long-serving captain Michael Leitch.
They are even inching towards tier one status having climbed to ninth in the world rankings.
Brown – an 18 Test All Black outhalf (1999-2001) when Andrew Mehtens and Carlos Spencer were in their prime – looks a coach in the Schmidt mould, just 10 years younger.
“They play at a really high pace and keep the ball in play for really long periods, 45 to 50 minutes,” said US attack coach Greg McWilliams following last weekend’s defeat. “They have multiple strike plays so it’s hard to analyse what exactly they are going to do. Some of their starter plays have three passes before they get to the gain line.
“Playing Japan in the cold would be a lot easier but in Suva our players came off the field like they had played through a storm. They were soaking wet with sweat. Those conditions are why so many teams are seeking warm weather and altitude training.”
Hence, Ireland’s eight day Quinta do Lago camp is primarily shaped around avoiding a major upset.
“I think Joe will be very smart about making sure Ireland are prepared, and that means not giving Japan the ball,” McWilliams added.
“It’s about getting the set piece right. That said, I thought their defensive shape against us was very good – line speed, good system with lots of men on their feet. It will be a fascinating tussle.”
“If we’re serious about managing resources, why is it 31? If we want to train 15 on 15 you need 30 players, but you’re always going to have three or four players who are a bit banged up, have a bit of a niggle who can’t train because they wouldn’t be right from the weekend.” - Jason Cowman, Ireland S&C coach
“I think it’s a very tight number that World Rugby limit you to. You know, they talk about player welfare but we’ve a six-day turnaround (between the Scotland and Japan games) into a five-day turnaround (between Japan and Russia) and with 31 players, that’s very, very complicated.” - Joe Schmidt, Ireland coach
“You get an injury that maybe takes you out for two games but not the entire tournament. If you get a couple of those you have to make fairly harsh decisions when it is actually not right as the player could be back for Samoa. I’d be more inclined to increase the squad size to 35 players. The problem with 31 is by the time you name three hookers and three nines there are positions you are really short on. There is a backrow/second row type player who will have to cover both but at a World Cup you shouldn’t have to makeshift people in there. It should be: this is our best squad.” - Rory Best, Ireland captain
“If a team can afford it they should have 10 players in a hotel nearby. If it is possible. We have the least amount of recovery days and highest amount of travel for any team at the World Cup. It would be great to have players nearby that we can call upon but we won’t. They should have increased the number when we look at the attrition rate.” - Greg McWilliams, USA attack coach