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'Following the herd doesn't cut the mustard, every team's got the opportunity to be unique'

By Jamie Lyall
Former All Blacks assistant Wayne Smith is learning about the psyche of Japanese rugby (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Wayne Smith has done a lot of winning. If he ever built a personal trophy cabinet – a suggestion that would jar the former All Black coach to the brink of vomiting – he would have enough silverware jammed behind the glass to guarantee most of New Zealand’s national debt.


Winning is nourishment, but only sates the mind temporarily. Trophies bring elation, but no lasting cure for the great obstacle course of life. What happens when the cacophonous stadium falls silent, the ecstasy subsides, the silver’s lustre dims and normality resumes?

“Over the years of coaching, I’ve come to the conclusion that winning isn’t enough,” Smith told RugbyPass. “Winning creates a short-term euphoria. But when you’re talking about mental wellness, happiness, optimism, it’s not necessarily going to create that.

“I’ve got to the stage where I think, as a coach, I have a responsibility to ensure that we are creating happiness and positivity in the environment. Not to win, but to ensure that the players are battling these stresses and pressures they come under.”

On Monday, Smith will fly north from New Zealand to Japan, not to revel in the final stages of a glorious World Cup, but to begin pre-season training with Kobelco Steelers, the reigning Top League champions where he is the director of rugby, or kantoku.

(Continue reading below…)

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Japan and its Brave Blossoms have taken a blowtorch to the old world order, roaring their way to the quarter-finals in the most captivating fashion against a backdrop of fervour and tragedy.

A relentless, adaptable beast that marries breakneck speed with outrageous accuracy and eye-watering fitness. A team that boots the notion you need an army of lumbering brutes to succeed in the modern game out of the window. Theirs is an astonishing culture. Where else could you stage a monumental Test match only hours after a snarling super typhoon had maimed the land and stolen lives?


Japanese rugby is special but brings its own unique stresses for those who play it. Top League clubs are affiliated with gigantic companies for whom most players have corporate jobs. That gives the athletes a wonderful platform to forge a career away from the game, but it adds another layer of responsibility.

Elite sport, a corporate job, family and a culture where extreme diligence and lofty achievements are expected – it is a privileged cocktail for players, but one that applies pressure from all corners.

To help ease the burden, Smith has devised a bespoke mental health programme at Kobe. Its aim is to combat life’s stresses, generate gratitude and foster a deeper connection between the club and its people. “We won’t rely on the club doing everything for us; we’ll make sure we’re doing things for the club,” he explained.

“We wanted a dojo for our contact training that was lined with pads. Rather than going to the club, we built it ourselves and the players had to be part of that – measuring out the space, laying the mats, showing the club that you’re thankful for what they do for you and you’re prepared to give something back. It’s a wee bit like the All Blacks sweeping the sheds, which is a big part of their culture.



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“Doing something good for other people is a big part of that. On a Wednesday morning, which is a day off, members of a mini-team will go and help with school patrol, making sure kids are safe crossing roads. Others will pick up rubbish around that vicinity. It’s not a statement that this is us, this is Kobe, and it’s not a publicity stunt. It’s just about doing something for other people.

“We found that those sorts of things create an attitude of more positivity, a bit more resilience, generate more support from the community, and ultimately that helps your accomplishment. Having those sorts of mindsets is healthy for the people you are involved with and gives you a lot of satisfaction whether you win or not.”

In the wake of their savaging of Scotland, a lovely video from within the Japan camp emerged on social media. Jamie Joseph, their canniest of coaches, and hooker Shota Horie were competing in a bombastic variation of rock-paper-scissors which involves belting your opponent on the bonce with a plastic hammer while he frantically scrambles to don a helmet as a shield.

The team room erupted when Horie was too slow to plant the helmet on his head and got a skelp from his coach. Bringing this sort of laughter and competition to the environment is vital. Depression, Smith says, can be toxic, infecting player after player, but happiness can spread rampantly through a group even more prolifically. His posse of coaches, led by New Zealanders Dave Dillon and Nick Holten, share this philosophy emphatically.

“Every meeting that you have, there’s an opportunity to open up the meeting to have a skit or a competition or show a video to break the ice and get the boys laughing,” Smith said. “It’s also a chance to bring out competitiveness, which is important in a team. You’ve got create opportunities to do stuff together and also have fun.

“We might have a small competition amongst mini-teams up in front of the group, quizzes, there is all sorts of stuff we can do. But alleviating the pressures is really important. It’s a hell of a complex job to create a winning and competitive environment.


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“But what I do know is that following the herd doesn’t cut the mustard. Every team’s got the opportunity to be unique, whether it’s the language you use or the way you play. Following what everyone else does might get you mid-table. Being your own people and your own team is very important.”

A predisposition to follow – not lead – pervades Japanese rugby and it is a stance Smith has had to shatter. Young players will empty themselves without question for their kantoku and their cause. They are often shy to question authority, reluctant to take on responsibility and contribute tangibly to their own development.

“The Japanese are famous for their work ethic,” continued Smith. “They come out of high school and university quite instructed players. They’re used to being told what to do. The big challenge for me was to get them involved more in terms of answering questions, asking questions, coming up with ideas as part of a leadership group.

“They’re beautiful, honourable, honest people and they will give you 100 per cent, particularly if you tell them what to do. But the game isn’t about that. The game’s a multi-level decision-making game. You need them to be able to adapt, adjust and overcome situations. To do that, they need to be prepared to ask questions and find solutions.

“Rather than it just being about coaches meeting with players, I had the players meet with each other and get honesty from each other. You’re trying to get to a level of excellence. We’re in high-performance sport.

If you’re not at a level of excellence, you need to know that – and it’s better coming from players than coaches. It’s a big part of the All Blacks environment, a very honest environment, a very vulnerable environment. Young players are vulnerable with each other, it creates huge honesty and it’s a really positive environment.

“That’s been a big focus for us and I know Jamie Joseph, Tony Brown and Scott Hansen coach along similar lines. They’ve had a lot of time with that team and it shows. They have created a team that’s able to think on its feet and adapt to situations.

“They have led the way for the future of Japanese rugby by showing that is the way to go and that Japanese players are just as capable as anyone else in the world at being those types of players.”

WATCH: Jim Hamilton previews Japan vs South Africa in the latest episode of Don’t Mess With Jim 

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