Former head coach of the Japan national rugby union team Eddie Jones paid tribute to the Japanese team at a farewell press conference in Tokyo on Monday (2 November). Jones, whose contract ended in October after three years in the role, led Japan to their most successful Rugby World Cup performance yet.
Japan's stunning 34-32 upset win over South Africa sent shockwaves around the sporting world. The Japanese became the first team to exit the World Cup after winning three group games.
"It has been real fun to take a team that was previously a joke in the world to a team that's now respected in the world," said Jones. "And it's happened because the players have worked so hard. We've had a Rugby Union that has supported us well and we've been able to develop a unique style of play for the Japanese team."
The team's performance has caused a surge of popularity back home in Japan, which will host the next Rugby World Cup in 2019. "The change in the perception of rugby has been enormous. I think for the World Cup to be successful, it's all about the national team winning the heart of the people, and if they're doing well and playing well, people are going to want to be involved in the World Cup," Jones said.
The Japanese team have also seen their credibility increase internationally, with interest in their talent from overseas. "There's going to be an announcement very shortly - a massive announcement. One of the key Japanese players has signed with a club overseas. It's a fantastic achievement for Japanese sport. So there's one going - there could be a couple more. There's a lot of interest now from clubs overseas in Japanese players because they've done so well on the world stage," Jones said.
However, Jones foresees a difficult path ahead for rugby in Japan. He believes the team lack "power and pace" which he attributes to the lack of elite training programmes that develop players from an early age.
"It has to plan to be successful. And to be successful, you need talent and you need that talent to be brought through at as an early age as possible and it needs to be done in a cohesive manner. That's the thing that's missing at the moment. And unfortunately, the Rugby Union at the moment is not set up to bring that talent through."
Jones, who was one of the nominations for the World Rugby Coach of the Year award, which went to Australia's Michael Cheika on Sunday (1 November), has signed a deal to coach the Cape Town-based Stormers in the 2016 Super Rugby season.
Additional reporting by Reuters