Thursday, 11 January 2018

What has happened to Marc Dal Maso's Japan scrum?

One of the most remarkable things over the last RWC cycle was the turnaround Japan managed to achieve at set piece especially in the scrummaging department. In the November of Eddie Jones' first year in charge he took his team to Romania, and although his side won, they were totally crushed at scrum. Immediately afterwards Jones resolved to improve it and went and recruited former France hooker Marc Dal Maso as scrum coach which turned out to be a masterstroke.

Under Dal Maso the Japanese quickly managed to turn a meagre scrum into statistically one of the most efficient in the world over 2014/15. All this was done with largely the same personnel too.

Aside from one match where they got completely demolished in Georgia, over that period the Japanese won 116 of 117 scrums in matches against top 20 opposition. The scrum became strong enough to dominate sides like Canada, USA, Fiji, Samoa or Maori All Blacks, famously shunted Italy about, and held up well against South Africa. Previously in 2011 under John Kirwan they couldn't exploit a weaker scrum such as Canada and it played a big part in losing them a close game against Italy.

GIF: In 2011 Japan's scrum failed badly and cost them their match with Italy, but by 2014
when they next met the Cherry Blossoms scrum had been transformed by Marc Dal Maso.

According to Eddie Jones this improvement was down to "changing the mindset of the players", intense "40 minute full on scrum sessions" that he claimed was double that of most sides, and "finding our competitive edge at the scrum" by scrummaging "very lowly and very cohesively".

Video: Eddie Jones remarks upon improvements to Japan's scrum at a press conference in 2014

It was one of the most astonishing turnarounds ever seen. However unfortunately since Jones and Dal Maso's departure after RWC 2015 there has been no legacy left behind. Under Jamie Joseph the scrum has reverted back closer to how it was before. This struggle is borne out quite clearly in the statistics (excluding matches with South Korea and Hong Kong).

Over 2015 Japan played 11 tests, won 83 from 84 of their scrums (99%), won 24 penalties to 18 conceded (+6), and the scrum directly contributed over three converted tries worth of penalty points including a penalty try against Samoa at the World Cup.

Over Jamie Joseph's time in charge so far Japan have played 10 tests, won 47 from 60 scrums (78%), won 9 penalties to 21 conceded (-12), with zero penalty points gained from it. In matches between top 20 nations over this period, Japan have had the lowest scrum success rate of any side but Namibia (64% over just two tests vs Uruguay). Under Eddie Jones and Marc Dal Maso they had the highest since the new laws came in 2013.

Japan scrum
(excluding Asian Championship)
Win %
(Own feed)
Direct pts
(under Eddie Jones)
(83 from 84)
(under Jamie Joseph)
(47 from 60)

The stats don't tell you everything. Under Jamie Joseph Japan have had overall more challenging opposition compared to under Eddie Jones with 6 of his 10 matches against Tier 1 nations, plus another two against relatively strong scrums in Georgia and Romania, and none against North Americans. However you could also add Japan's scrum success has dipped markedly in the context of a general worldwide trend since the RWC where it has become much rarer for scrums to be won against the head.

Anyway whilst the stats prove the point to a certain degree, you need just watch the games to see the scrum has been a significant weakness that has been hurting Japan badly.

GIF: Japan's scrum struggled badly against Ireland in June

Against Romania, Ireland, and Australia last year, Japan lost 8 scrums of their own put in. Of those 6 were penalties, three of which led to tries conceded right from first phase off the next lineout, plus another was a penalty advantage early in the first test against Ireland which was then just gathered to run off early breakaway score.

Penalties conceded on opposition put in have hurt them at crucial times too. Japan did well to concede a relatively low amount of scrums against France, but there were still penalties from those scrums that allowed the French to clear their lines and also kick an important 3 points in that match. For the Romanians in June, the scrum was also an effective way to claw their way back into the match in the second half, even though again there were not that many in the game.
Kensuke Hatakeyama (left) &
Hiroshi Yamashita (right) were
mainstays under Eddie Jones but
disappeared under Jamie Joseph

It is hard to see the same turnaround that happened under Eddie Jones occurring again though. Partly down to Jamie Joseph not putting as much emphasis on it as his predecessor, but also down to personnel and a lack of options he has especially at tighthead prop.

The entire group of tightheads used under Jones in 2014/15, including the experienced duo of Kensuke Hatakeyama and Hiroshi Yamashita, plus also the younger Shinnosuke Kakinaga have all disappeared from the international setup. None of them featured at all in 2017.

On the face of it this sounds a bit confusing as none are too old for the next World Cup, and both Hatakeyama and Yamashita have plenty of experience both at international level plus having played abroad in the Premiership or Super Rugby, and were cornerstones of the most successful scrum Japan has ever had and you would think might be able to help.

But they along with a handful of others from the 2015 squad (Kosei Ono, Male Sa'u, Ayumu Goromaru, Michael Broadhurst), for various reasons have simply faded and now appear to be basically finished in Japan colours. Since the World Cup, Hatakeyama has gone from being an ever present at tighthead for Japan over 8 years to not even making extended training squads, to featuring in the Top League Dream XV for 6 consecutive seasons to now being third choice at Suntory Sungoliath.

More recently Heiichiro Ito and Takuma Asahara, both rated as the best tightheads in the Top League over the past two seasons, have been tried, failed to impress, and since been dropped. Meanwhile young scrummaging specialist Yoto Ioki, who has caught the eye with some recent performances for Toyota Verblitz, but he has somewhat of an old school physique and is presumably not suited for the sort of game Joseph wants to play and why he is limited to impact sub appearances for his club.

Video: Yoto Ioki comes on and dominates the Panasonic Wild Knights' full
international front row at scrum during the recent Top League semi final.

The current incumbent is Koo Ji-Won, who whilst may be a decent prospect and actually has done okay so far all things considering, he is still in his rookie season playing for Honda Heat in the Japanese second division and not a great deal can be expected of such inexperience against elite scrums.

With Asaeli Valu, who seems to be picked based more on play in the loose than at scrum, to come off the bench. Watching Valu (who also has relatively little experience with under 20 starts over 5 seasons with Panasonic Wild Knights despite being older at 28) scrum recently with Panasonic, alongside Japan's first choice loosehead and hooker, getting pushed around even at Top League level is not particularly encouraging for the prospects of the Brave Blossoms' scrum in 2018.
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Japan's Korean born prospect at
tighthead prop Koo Ji-Won

Joseph looks set to stick with Koo and Valu in the lead up to the RWC. Although should struggles at scrum continue it is very possible that South African tighthead Ruan Smith, who qualifies on residency just before the RWC, may have a strong chance of making the team as a quick fix for the tournament. His Sunwolves selection certainly suggests that may be an option Joseph is considering.

For all the problems the scrum has faced though, it could have been a lot worse if not for one thing (as noted above) that Japan have done very effectively under Joseph which is simply limiting the amount of the scrums there are in a game.

In November, France were limited to just 4 scrums with their own put in and had zero in the first half. In June against Romania, up until a small cluster of 3 scrums in the final couple of minutes with the result already decided, there had only been 6 scrums in the match and were just 2 in the first half. Whilst in 2016 against Georgia, the match was limited to only 7 scrums, which was a great effort by Japan and well below the international average of 13 per match and a significant factor behind their upset win.

To realistically beat top 8 sides and have a chance of reaching RWC quarter finals though, Japan can't get away with just damage control. Massive improvement in this area is required which we will see if they can make over 2018 where they will face a series of very challenging scrummaging opponents (Italy, Georgia, New Zealand, and England).

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