BOOK REVIEW: Ultimate Crush

A book review of Ulitmate Crush: Waseda University Rugby, Leadership and Building the Strongest Winning Team in Japan Katsuyuki Kiyomiya translated by Ian Ruxton.

The Japanese love slogans.

Ultimate Crush, which was coined for the Waseda University rugby team, translates differently according to the dialect used*, but the core meaning of “overwhelming victory” is clear.

For rugby coaches, this book is an interesting read for many reasons. As the translator Ian Ruxton points out, there is very little literature on Japanese rugby available in English, and this unusual publication reveals a passion for the sport in Japan that the rest of the world is little aware of. The story of Katsuyuki Kiyomiya and how he turned around Waseda after 13 years in the doldrums is relevant for any rugby coach who craves success.

”Waseda took the Japanese university championship four times and out of 70 games under him won 62, drew 1, and lost just 7”

Kiyomiya’s record as head coach over the five years to 2006 was outstanding. Waseda took the Japanese university championship four times and out of 70 games under him won 62, drew 1, and lost just 7. That’s an 88.5% win rate. (By comparison, Eddie O’Sullivan’s successful record over 78 games in charge of Ireland was 64%). Among the team’s scalps were wins over company team Toyota Verblitz, New Zealand Universities, Oxford and Cambridge.

Waseda University v Meiji University

Kiyomiya puts his early success down to “energy” – during his second season he organised a move to a new ground, signed a sponsorship deal with Adidas, and managed to organise a visit from the then Wales and British Lions coach Graham Henry. Kiyomiya is now full-time professional coach at Suntory Sungoliath in the Top League in Japan, where he finished second in his first season. Suntory became champions in 2007-08, proving his methods are no flash in the pan.

The book is a personal and at times intimate account of Kiyomiya’s coaching career at Waseda and there is plenty of detail about his coaching philosophy. For an individual now tipped as a potential Japan coach it is ironic to discover that at first his appointment was rejected by the Waseda players. They wanted a back and he was a forward and were worried that the team would not be able to play its trademark open rugby: spreading the ball wide. Kiyomiya believes that this rejection motivated him to prove them wrong and that his subsequent success could not have been achieved without it.

Kiyomiya had no illusions about what he was inheriting. “They were a bunch of amateurs,” he says. “The players had small bodies, few had real power and they were all slow runners.” To start, he watched videos of all Waseda’s games in the previous year (which took about a week). “We put into statistics the way the ball was moved, the number of mistakes, the accuracy of continuous attacks.”

He scrapped all the old practice schedules, reduced training time from six hours a day to two, and refused to countenance any training unless “the results could be expressed in numerical values.” Above all, he created a new style of play “through continued practice”. Players practiced the elementary moves of running straight and passing such as a rugby beginner would, over and over again.

“In essence the work of a coach is repetitive. The coach must continue to say ‘this is how it should be’ and ‘this is what you should do’“

Kiyomiya’s approach includes some odd methods, including “scolding practice” whereby the players practice for hours what they failed to do in the previous game, in one instance shouting the names of the opposition players as they made tackles. However, others show a methodical dedication to detailed analysis of performance to inform coaching and development. He introduced evaluation charts for players with 20 headings. Every Waseda player gets a feedback sheet after a game showing how he performed under various headings and scores under each heading.

“In essence the work of a coach is repetitive. The coach must continue to say ‘this is how it should be’ and ‘this is what you should do’,” says Kiyomiya.

Katsuyuki Kiyomiya

According to his sometimes breathless account, there was never a dull moment in Kiyomiya’s five years at Waseda. Among the dramas, he had to deal with the fallout from a player appearing in a porn movie, hit another for dissent, and dropped a star prop for breaking a promise (that he would give up smoking). Kiyomiya became temporarily unpopular for kicking out players when there were too many in the club to allow meaningful training. The impression is given, though, that these incidents were all turned around, prompting Kiyomiya to quote the maxim that what does not kill you makes you stronger.

The insight the reader gets from Ultimate Crush is that a national culture is instilled in the game to an extent not matched in the northern hemisphere. Such things as the team slogan are highly important, hours are spent thinking of the correct phrase to use, and new slogans are adopted and then abandoned when they do not work.

And then there is the team victory song, which can only be sung when the team wins the championship, and is the cause of much emotion and tear-shedding. One cannot fail to get a strong sense of the Japanese moral values of respect, honour and persistence, and how they permeate the Japanese game.

Ultimate Crush is a rugby literary curiosity, brought to us only by the ingenuity and entrepreneurialism of the translator, himself a rugby fan. The language will come across as stilted to some readers with a translation of the formal Japanese mode of speech creating an old-fashioned overall tone. However, it is more than successful in getting across the honest picture painted by Kiyomiya of himself as a gritty, determined and above all passionate leader, committed to winning and to rugby as a game that improves human nature.

The tone is coloured by the sad story of Kiyomiya’s friend Katsuhiko Oku, a dedicated rugby follower, Waseda old boy, and the inventor of the Ultimate Crush slogan. Oku was murdered whilst working in Iraq as a diplomat and the book is dedicated to him.

* In standard Japanese it means “Knock down your opponent decisively”. In other dialects, it means: “Give him a damn good hiding” and “Punch his lights out”.


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