by Lee Watkins
Arriving in Japan after an intense 4-day course coaching the Brisbane Broncos, the strength and conditioning coach, John Pryor, was shocked to discover the physical disparity between the Australians he had just left behind and the Japanese players, which now stood in front of him.
“I’ll never forget my first day with Suntory. All the guys took their shirts off to go for a swim and my eyes popped out of my head! I couldn’t believe how scrawny and lacking in muscles they were,” said the former S&C coach for the Brumbies, Wallabies, Suntory and Japan.
Brought in by Eddie Jones, John’s mission was to “toughen up” the Suntory team that had failed in previous seasons against the big boys in the Top League. By 2012 they had reclaimed the Japan Cup and added the Top League to their list of achievements.
“That was probably the maddest years of my life! We were in there at 5am, five days a week and not leaving until 9pm.” One of the first things John had to do was radically change the players’ nutrition and training habits whilst being sensitive to aspects of Japanese culture.
“I totally tipped upside down the way that the team ate because it was terribly poor. That took a bit of skill because I didn’t want to take away the Japanese foods they were comfortable with but we just had to make different choices. We cut out rice and brought in soba more often, which gives you a slower energy release. We had to increase protein sizes.”
Also, the Japanese inclination to over-train needed addressing by Eddie and John. “You’ve got to be culturally sensitive; if you have too much rest and too much time off in Japan, the players will start to worry because they’re used to working hard. So Eddie and I had to devise a program where we’d train pretty much every day. We would have to sometimes dress up particular sessions so that they thought they were working hard but in actual reality it wasn’t so tough. By small manipulations we were able to achieve the right work and recovery ratio,” said John.
When Eddie Jones left his position with Suntory and became the Japan head coach, as expected, John followed. “I’m the world record holder for number of years working under Eddie!” In fact, when Eddie Jones recently became the England head coach, John was intending to link up with him again but decided against it for family reasons and for having mixed feelings about joining the Poms. “I have to admit, I would have found it quite unusual to wear a white tracksuit and have ‘God Save the Queen’ playing at Twickenham,” joked John.
Their time together with the Japan squad was hugely successful. Winning three matches at the 2015 Rugby World Cup can largely be attributed to the hard work, tortuous training camps and clever methods that the coaching staff implemented.
“When Eddie and I sat down two years before the world cup, we did an analysis in all of our strengths and weaknesses and recognized that we didn’t have one physical advantage but we had a massive cultural advantage in that our guys were mentally going to be able to handle a much tougher training regime.”
Although hard work was a key component of Eddie Jones’ regime, training had to have “intent” or it was a waste of time. “Sometimes you had players that were doing all these extra hours but a lot of the time it was useless. They might be jogging extremely slow laps for an hour or throwing a pass a hundred times into a net. We had to introduce the idea that every minute you spend at a rugby club had to be purpose specific and that you should have variation and feedback.”
The infamous training camps in Kyushu leading up to the 2015 World Cup are a great example of the “intent” that the coaching staff and players incorporated into their training. “We had South Africa week, Samoa week, America week or Scotland week, and we practiced tactics, thought about that particular team, and put photos of them up in the gym.” The camp in Miyazaki began in April, with players starting at 6am with fitness and strength training, then a “hard session” after breakfast, followed by lunch and another “hard session” at 4 or 5pm.
“I know 100% that if I tried to implement that here in Australia with the Wallabies or with clubs in England or New Zealand, players would walk out, they would contact the player welfare agencies, I would have the players’ union telling me I was breaking the rules. There was just no way, culturally, we could get away with that program anywhere else. As resilient as the Japanese squad were, if you talked to some of them now, they just made it through and I’m not sure that they could do it again,” said John.
Being in such an intense environment for a long period of time could easily lead to burnout or a loss of morale, but Eddie was “clever” enough to schedule plenty of mental breaks.
“Once a week we would go to a little beach and have a few beers. It never went on for more than hour and so nobody got drunk or crazy but just relaxed and had some seafood on the beach. I think that kept people sane. Other times we’d have a fun sports match or travel to a shrine and have dinner,” explained John.
All the hard work paid off in spectacular fashion, with the famous win against the Springboks later that year. But what impressed John the most was the way the players grew into leaders throughout the tournament.
“The coaches were nervous, the players were not. Michael Leitch, Shota Horie, Fumiaki Tanaka; in the week leading up to it (South Africa match), the players showed a lot of confidence and were quite composed. Going into the game, it gave me confidence because I had never seen them like that. The players developed internal leadership and genuine confidence.”
The impact that John had on Suntory and Japan can easily be overlooked with all the media interest that surrounds Eddie Jones and Ayumu Goromaru. However, John Pryor’s 5am training sessions, which he still occasionally implements when working part-time with the Brumbies and Suntory, certainly helped to “toughen up” the Brave Blossoms.
John originally planned to retire from the strength and conditioning world once he hit 39 years old, describing it as a “young man’s game.” If only he could overcome his aversion to the red rose and Twickenham, then England might just be able to win the World Cup in 2019.
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