Eddie Jones (AP)
Tokyo - Eddie Jones saved the highest praise for his Rugby World Cup squad for their homecoming, presenting the Brave Blossoms as "the new sports heroes of Japan."
Under Jones' guidance, Japan easily surpassed expectations by winning three pool games in England, kicking it all off with the biggest upset ever, against two-time champion South Africa.
"These are the new sports heroes of Japan," Jones told a packed news conference at the airport on their arrival home Tuesday.
Officials at World Rugby couldn't have asked for better exposure of the sport in the country which will host the next World Cup in 2019, the first to be staged in Asia. Japan hadn't won a Rugby World Cup game in 24 years before leaving for England — its only previous victory against Zimbabwe in 1991.
Jones predicted kids in Japan would now be practicing to kick goals like Ayumu Goromaru, pack down in scrums like Kensuke Hatakeyama, and score tries like winger Yoshikazu Fujita.
"It's a great credit to the team, they've changed Japanese rugby," national news agency, Kyodo, quoted Jones as saying. "They played with courage, not only physical courage but mental courage.
"The mental courage is about playing the Japanese way. It wouldn't matter if we went back and played in pink jerseys now. Everybody would recognize the Japanese style of play.
"To finish the tournament ranked ninth in the world, to finish ahead of countries like England, is an absolutely amazing success story. But like any success story the next chapter's so important."
Jones, who starts his new Super Rugby job in South Africa on Nov. 1, the day after the Rugby World Cup final, said it was crucial for Japan to allow younger players to develop a professional mindset. To be allowed to be the best they can be.
"I always thought Japanese rugby was underperforming. There are a lot of good players in Japan but unfortunately the rugby culture in Japan is not about performance," he said. "From high school, into university, and even in the Top League teams, they don't train to perform at a high level, they train to be disciplined, they train to be obedient, and therefore they don't learn the game."
Jones took over as Japan coach from ex-All Blacks winger John Kirwan in the 2012 season. Before that, he had a long list of coaching appointments, including stints coaching club rugby in Japan, and guiding Australia to the 2003 Rugby World Cup final.
The 55-year-old Australian has a close affinity with Japan — his mother and his wife are Japanese. And before he left England, he hinted he could return to Japan after leading the Stormers.
"It's always sad when you leave a team that you love," he said.
That said, he suggested some tough love was needed from rugby administrators in Japan.
"High school, university, and Top League teams need to train rugby players to be rugby players," he said. "It's not just going to happen. It's going to take a plan, and it's going to take implementation. And it's going to be hard ... because it involves change, and change makes people uncomfortable."