Saturday, 2 August 2014

The remarkable improvement of the Japan scrum


The importance of the incredible improvements of the Japanese scrum under coach Marc dal Maso simply cannot be overstated and are making a huge difference for the side.

Think back to Japan's trip to Cesena in August 2011, where the Cherry Blossoms faced Italy away from home. The match was a close affair, with Japan leading at half time but falling behind in the second half to lose by 7 points 31-24.

3 years later the sides met again, this time Japan outplayed Italy and controlled possession for most of the match to record their first win over Italians in Tokyo.

Without any shadow of a doubt the crucial difference between the 2011 game and the 2014 game was the Japanese scrum. If the scrum had still been as it was in 2011, Japan simply would not have won. Even if the scrum was at the levels of last year, Japan would not have won.

In 2011 the Japan scrum was completely wrecked to the extent that even winning their own ball was a struggle. It was impossible to launch attacks and gain momentum of set piece ball, and it was leaking territory and points. Other incidents could be pointed to such as a bombed try or an awful piece of defence on the wing, but throughout the match the struggle of the scrum was the dominant factor in losing the game.

(Video: Italy demolished Japan in the scrum in 2011)

In 2014 though, the Japan scrum was immovable. Consistent throughout the match, it held up and offered a good platform for launching attacks via the number 8 Ryu Holani or the backline and getting front foot momentum and quality possession.

There were two notable scrum plays in the game, one where Japan shunted the Italians back about 10 or 15 metres, and another at the end of the solidity of the scrum removed any chance of Italy getting one last play in their half as they wound the clock down scrum after scrum which ended in a well earned penalty.
(Video: Japan shunting the Italian scrum about this June)

From the state it was left in 3 years ago, it was an utterly remarkable turnaround. What makes the turnaround even more incredible it hasn't been done with a new set of players, but just a lot of hard work in improving what was much the same unit in 2011.

Loosehead Masataki Mikami was a new addition to the front row alongside Shota Horie and Kensuke Hatakeyama who both started the game 3 years ago. The other starting prop in that game Hisateru Hirashima, who was sin binned for scrum offences, when he came off the bench 3 years later he held up the scrum over that last passage of play.

Meanwhile the opposition was the same as well. Italy had all but the retired Andrea Lo Cicero of their starting front 5 from the 2011 game remaining in their starting lineup in 2014, which included the highly rated tighthead Lorenzo Cittadini.

Just like in 2011, Japan are still bombing tries and not being truly clinical, the wingers are still a bit of liability in defence (both areas need work on to beat better sides than Italy), but it's the scrum that has made the difference that has allowed them to get away with that like they couldn't in the past.

This was apparent not just in the Italy game but in the North American tour as well where the ability to really dominate the weaker scrummaging nations played a big role in them getting control of the match in the second half against Canada, and throughout against the USA.
(Video: Japan slaughtered the North American scrums this June)

The improvements over the course of June follow on from significant progress made under former France hooker Marc dal Maso who came in as specialist scrum coach in 2012.

When he first arrived the scrum got destroyed by Eastern European packs Romania and Georgia. In Romania in particular, just being so massively superior in that facet of the game made for a close game despite Japan being the better side in most other areas.
(Video: Scrum coach Marc dal Maso arrived to see the scrum butchered by Romania)

There were considerable improvements in 2013, but it came with an inconsistency. Matches were filled with both good scrums and some that went not quite so well. Against Scotland, Japan won 2 scrums against the head one of which led to a try but equally were penalised on a dozen occasions as well.

Marc dal Maso at work on the Japanese scrum
But 2014 and new engagement rules has seen even more progress and with added consistency and it has already made a huge difference and Marc dal Maso deserves a lot of credit. The newly found functioning scrum, along with a good controlling pair of half backs is what is separating them from Canada and USA at the moment.

Scrummaging has never been particularly what Japan is known for and Marc dal Maso has probably brought it up to the best levels in memory. It is now able to take advantage of others weaknesses, and also hold its own against 6 Nations opposition last June. This year it has come through all its tests so far, but it has to be said that we still haven't seen it measured on a consistent basis against the top scrummaging nations in the world.

Whilst being able to measure their scrum against the best in the world isn't possible, they will however get a test to see where they stand amongst Tier 2 nations when this November they will rematch with Romania and Georgia, two of the stronger scrummaging nations outside Tier 1 and who dominated in that area in 2012. If Japan can come on top against them like they did against Italy there would be a good argument they have transformed into possibly the best scrummaging unit of any Tier 2 nation and that should be the aim, and it will put them in a far better position to challenge better nations in the future.

1 comment :

  1. Watched Georgia - Japan, I was not able to see any improvement in that match!