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'Fascinating continent' inspiring Simon Amor after his England exit

By Liam Heagney
Japan 7s boss Simon Amor (Photo by Mike Lee/World Rugby)

It’s a small world. Only a few weeks ago, RugbyPass was at the IRFU high-performance centre in Dublin chatting with new Ireland women’s XV assistant Declan Danaher about the various steps he had taken in the last year since the financial collapse of London Irish ended his 24-year employment with that club as a player and then as a coach.

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The first lifeline he was thrown was a call from Simon Amor, the ex-England defence coach. Japan were looking for some help preparing for their Olympics 7s qualifier in Asia and Danaher quickly and successfully mucked in, assisting Amor’s men’s team to book their ticket to the Paris Games in 15 weeks.

He is now working his way through his first Guinness Six Nations campaign under Scott Bemand while on the other side of the world, Amor is still hard at it to ensure Japan are ready to make the step up and impress at the Olympics.

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The tunnel area last weekend at the Hong Kong 7s was like a Formula One pit lane pre-race, a cosmopolitan melting pot of players and coaches from a wild variety of backgrounds.

Amor was delighted RugbyPass called him over for a natter last Sunday morning to connect the dots. He had read the website’s Danaher interview, inviting us to connect on LinkedIn, so here we were, getting the lowdown on a Japanese sevens set-up whose playing style last weekend was very easy on the eye, reminiscent of their 2019 men’s team at that year’s XV Rugby World Cup.

A Challenger Series participant, the second-tier circuit Japanese were at HK7s to take part in the Melrose Claymore sidebar event for Asian countries. A semi-final against China had just been won 36-31 some hours before Japan would lose the tournament’s inaugural final 12-22 to a Hong Kong China team backed by raucous home support, exposure that was invaluable with the countdown on towards Paris where they will be mixing it with the big boys from the HSBC SVNS Series in front of a capacity crowd.

“The biggest thing in Japan is the pride of the country, the pride in their family and their company is very, very high, and therefore making mistakes is something that is very, very difficult for them because a lot of shame and guilt comes with that,” said Amor, explaining the challenge involved in coaching the Japanese.

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“So getting them to understand how you learn from mistakes and you grow, particularly in sevens when you are tired and you are going to make a lot of mistakes, that has been a really big challenge for them but they are really embracing and learning but it is very difficult.

“We had a very simple philosophy to try and win the Asian qualifiers for the Olympics which worked but we know if we are going to do something special at the Olympics we have got to play a very high-risk game, play an exciting game and that was what that (semi-final) definitely was. There was some wonderful play, we made a few mistakes but I loved the way and the effort the boys went into giving it a go.

“If you play that style of rugby, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t and you have just got to keep learning and working with the guys. We want to play that style of rugby because we think it will make us successful but also we think if we play that style of rugby at the Stade de France, we will have 80,000 people cheering for Japan which will be great.

“Japan has always qualified for the Olympics and has done so for Paris in both men’s and women’s, so it is very important in terms of getting the support from the Japanese Olympic committee, keeping it at the forefront of people’s minds and headlines in papers so it’s very important.

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“Asia is such a fascinating continent going from Japan to China down to India and Sri Lanka and down to the Middle East. I mean it is so big, so broad and there are so many different cultures and of course, trying to get a 15-a-side international competition up and running is difficult, as it is such a vast area.

“So I think sevens is the perfect tool in Asia and the Asian sevens series is really growing. Certainly, in the three years I have been involved, I have really seen growth across the board in so many of the nations around the sevens competitions, so I think it is a very exciting time for Asia.

“I came to Hong Kong (after exiting Jones’ England). I was head coach of the XVs for about three or four months. I loved it – I love Asia, love the culture and the Japanese, I’m trying to learn the language to try and understand more, but I love the people, their work ethic and their culture is fantastic so it’s a wonderful challenge.”

Japan are currently only seventh in the Challenger Series following legs in Dubai and Montevideo heading towards next month’s finale in Munich. Promotion this year is already beyond them, so all their preparations are geared towards impressing in Paris in late July, a task where the next step after Hong Kong is a trip to Fiji for some games against Gareth Baber’s gold-medal chasing side.

“It’s a bit of a challenge but opportunities like this to play at Hong Kong where we have got some great teams, we have the Challenger Series and we are going over to the USA, we are going over to Fiji in the next week or so to have some games against them. Good opportunities to keep impressing against the best.

“Japan is a camp-based model so you get the players released from their companies and we either do a camp in Japan or we jump somewhere else for us to try and get some competition. The most important thing for us in Japan is we need games, they don’t have a lot of experience. A lot of these guys may have only played one or two sevens tournaments in their lives so all of these opportunities are great learning.

“Sevens is such a beautiful but simple game it’s easy to grow the game nationally and certainly I think the Japanese skill set, the nature of Japanese players, really suits the game of sevens. There could be a good time for Japan to grow the game there.

“Our captain at the moment, Kippei Ishida, is probably the smallest player on the pitch but he has got the biggest heart. He is an absolute dynamo and he leads by example all the time, so I’m really impressed by his game.”

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A former XVs scrum-half who was named World Rugby’s sevens player of the year in 2004, the soon-to-be 45-year-old Amor was the longest-serving England 7s coach, being at the helm from 2013 through to an offer from Eddie Jones to join the England XVs as an assistant for the 2020 Six Nations.

There was a second-place finish at the 2018 Rugby World Cup, and he also coached Great Britain 7s to second at the Rio Olympics in 2016 and qualified them for the delayed Games in Tokyo.

“It’s certainly different,” he said, contrasting the resources that exist for rugby in England and Japan. “The RFU is the biggest in the world of the national governing bodies and has all the systems and structures and people in place to run it that way.

“A lot of the nations are trying to build those structures and systems and that is all part of the journey so you accept some things are not going to be perfect but what there is always is in Asia is you have got effort to improve, effort by people to make transformational change which is ultimately why we are all here.

“We are here in sport to make transformational change in communities and countries and families and stuff and that’s why we have got all the stuff on.”

With the transformational change sought by Jones’ England not materialising, Amor stepped aside in May 2021 after a two-wins-from-five finish in that year’s Six Nations. The pair caught up recently with Jones himself now working in Japan as the new XVs boss.

“He was down in Okinawa and I caught up with him then and he has a wonderful challenge with the XVs. They are separate programmes, but there is communication between the staff.”

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Abe 1 hours ago
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Turlough 5 hours ago
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