How Coach Eddie Jones became enraged at his captain’s sheepish grin and transformed Japan’s rugby world

In February this year, Rakuten People & Culture Lab advisor Ryuji Nakatake published Winning Culture: Creating People and Organizations with Winning Habits. “Winning Culture” is one of the Lab’s research themes and we have often discussed the common essence of winning teams around the world, including Spanish professional soccer club FC Barcelona.

But how do you create a strong organizational culture with a winning habit? Mr. Nakatake is currently publishing a series of articles entitled “Ryuji Nakatake’s Winning Culture” on Diamond Online. In this column, we present an article about Japan’s national rugby team. 

Behind the Japan national rugby team’s best-eight finish at the 2019 Rugby World Cup lies the overcoming of a defeatist mentality. (For details [in Japanese], see “The Transformation in Organizational Culture that Supported Japan’s First Top-Eight Finish in Rugby”) Let me share with you what happened behind the scenes. 

It was the opening match of the World Cup. 

Japan’s first opponent was Russia, a lower-ranked team. Assuming they could remain calm and play according to plan, it was a match they could win by a large margin. 

But as the match progressed, Japan’s Brave Blossoms made a series of uncharacteristic mistakes. Although not fatal, the errors led to a narrow 30 – 10 victory, a score that fell far short of the team’s true potential. 

Here’s what the athletes had to say at the post-game press conference: 

“I was so nervous I thought I was going to die.”

“Today, from the start of the match, I really had no idea what to do.” 

It was the first Rugby World Cup to be held in Japan and, with an opening match against a lower-ranked opponent, the Japanese team’s victory was considered a foregone conclusion. The athletes, nervous in the face of the heavy pressure they faced, were unable to control themselves. 

What caught my attention was the fact that the players frankly revealed the fact that they had made a lot of mistakes due to nervousness. Their attitude and words symbolized the “winning culture” that the Japanese national team had built. 

In the world of sports, national team players have always been expected to behave with dignity. No matter how nervous they may be, they are not to reveal it. It goes without saying that there is no room for weakness.

This team, however, was clearly different. These players had no use for needless fervor.

In accordance with the policy of Coach Jamie Joseph, the Japan national team’s players regularly exposed their varied emotions to each other, including their weaknesses, learned from each other, and hungrily sought to become stronger. 

The athletes were playing without inhibition, acknowledging each other’s mistakes and weaknesses while growing together as a team seeking victory. 

Watching them speak openly before the press, I was able to sense the organizational culture that the team had built. Which is probably why Japan was able to achieve its first-ever best-eight finish. 

Looking back on the history of rugby in Japan, the team wasn’t strong from the start. 

In fact, for a long time, they were unable to break free from their “defeatist mentality.” It was Coach Eddie Jones, Jamie’s predecessor, who pointed this out.

Coach Eddie flies into a rage over a sheepish grin

Jones was appointed Japan head coach in April 2012. 

At the time, the Japan national team was in dire straits, unable to win any of its test matches (matches between teams representing different countries or areas). There was also a strong tendency to make excuses when they lost. 

Made up primarily of amateur players, there was no way that the Japan national team could win against the sport’s powerhouse countries. There was a prevailing attitude that, if you gave it your all, there wasn’t much you could do about it if you lost. 

“There’s more value in playing a good game than in winning.”

That was where things stood upon Jones’s arrival. In response, he vowed to fundamentally overturn Japan’s “losing mindset.”

The “losing mindset” that Jones referred to was on full display in the first match that the team competed in after he became head coach. The opponent wasn’t the French national team, but rather the French Barbarians, considered to be the second national team. And the result? Japan was handed a resounding defeat.

Jones was more upset with the way the Japanese players perceived their loss than with the loss itself and, unable to contain his frustration, exploded with anger during the post-game press conference.

What set him off was then team captain Toshiaki Hirose’s wrap-up of the match. While summing up the game, Hirose displayed a sheepish grin, an expression particular to the Japanese. To him, it was nothing out of the ordinary and was not intended to convey any special meaning. And to most of the journalists in the venue at the time, nothing about it seemed out of the ordinary. 

But Jones, who was looking sidelong at Hirose, promptly launched into a tongue lashing, his face flushing red.

“It’s not funny!” he declared. “That’s the problem with Japanese rugby!”

Organizational culture oozes out in subtle ways, such as through the expressions and words of the people who belong to it. The Japan national team at the time was one in which even the captain had no reservations about flashing a sheepish grin, revealing no regrets over having just lost a match.

This marked the start of Jones’s efforts to fundamentally overturn the Japan national team’s “losing mindset.”

Becoming a team that seriously regrets losing

“To beat the world powerhouses, we need to change the players’ ‘losing mindset.’”

In order to fundamentally change the team’s organizational culture, Jones imposed an overwhelming amount of training on the players. Five times a day he would conduct training sessions that, if pushed to the limit, would wipe them out after 30 minutes. Working them hard from 5:00 in the morning, Jones would wake his players up to a degree they could barely tolerate.

About his policy at the time, this is what Jones told me. 

“When we get to the World Cup, I want to instill in them the confidence of knowing that we’ve practiced harder than any other team. I want them to know that, with this team, they can do it.”

As the players continued working hard, pushing themselves to their limit in accordance with Jones’s belief, their behavior began to change. Most of them began to go to bed at around 9:00 p.m. in preparation for the early morning practices and a disciplined lifestyle began to take hold.

Each player’s mindset also began to change, as did the outcome of their matches. 

And in June 2013, one year after having scolded Hirose in the post-game press conference, Japan beat Wales, one of the world’s top teams, finishing with a decisive 23 – 8 score. 

They proved that they could win once they set their minds to it.

Once they realized this obvious lesson, the “losing mindset” that had long permeated the team vanished. Instead, a no-excuse atmosphere took hold and, before long, the organizational culture underwent a transformation into one that relentlessly pursued victory.

The Brave Blossoms realized a complete 180-degree turnaround, from a team that would grin sheepishly after a loss to one that felt genuine, deep regret in the face of defeat.

Over the course of three years, Jones succeeded in thoroughly overhauling the Japan national team’s organizational culture. And on top of this foundation, Coach Jamie Joseph, under the banner “One Team,” built an organizational culture in which everyone involved, from the players to team staff, trusted one another like a family.

No matter how skilled or how physically capable they may be, people with strong egos who only care about themselves and talk about others behind their back cannot be accepted within the group. In order to instill the One Team approach, Joseph had to ensure thorough communication among his players and staff.

As the amount of conversation increased throughout the entire team, players and staff began to disclose their weaknesses and acknowledge each other’s mistakes. 

I believe that this cohesiveness became the organizational culture that propelled Japan to victory.

In 1995, Japan suffered a crushing 17 – 145 defeat at the hands of New Zealand at the 3rd Rugby World Cup, setting the disgraceful record of sacrificing the highest point total of any team in Rugby World Cup history. The team lost its confidence and relinquished its fixation on winning. 

Twenty-four years later, the Brave Blossoms, a team that had been mired in a “losing mindset,” is ranked 10th in the World Rugby rankings (as of January 16, 2021) and made great strides to finish among the best eight in the Rugby World Cup.

The team that used to flash embarrassed smiles after losing their matches became a team that disclosed their weaknesses and learned from each other, working together in relentless pursuit of victory. 

The realization of this major transformation can be attributed primarily to the development of rugby skills, strategies and tactics based on world-class coaching, along with the increased physical abilities of the players, but those aren’t the only reasons. Based on my analysis, this was the result of each player autonomously changing the team culture to instill a winning culture.

Rugby is considered to be a sport in which the players’ size and strength have a decisive influence. In this respect, no one thought that Japanese players, who are generally smaller and leaner than their Western counterparts, would be able to compete against overseas players.

But, in reality, they were more than capable of overcoming the physical challenges. 

This achievement was only made possible because of the winning culture that had permeated the team. 

This is not limited to the Japan’s national rugby team. In the business world as well, teams, organizations, and companies can build strong teams by similarly instilling a winning culture.

This article is an English translation of an article from the serialized DIAMOND Online series Ryuji Nakatake’s Winning Culture, printed with permission by DIAMOND, Inc.

The original article (in Japanese) can be viewed here.