Former Japan national rugby coach Eddie Jones shrugged off his handlers to make a sayonara appearance at the FCCJ.

IN A RECENT JAPAN TIMES, columnist Philip Brasor wrote about the way Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his handlers try to control press conferences so that journalists don’t ask unexpected questions. Perhaps the saddest part was how the media allows themselves to be controlled and how often journalists actively participate in their own neutering through complicity and self-censorship.

The sports world is no different. One of the most ludicrous examples occurred in the lead-up to the 2002 FIFA World Cup. After FIFA President Sepp Blatter sat down in front of a crowded room full of journalists at a press conference organized by Japan’s World Cup Organizing Committee, the emcee stood up and announced that journalists could only ask questions in Japanese. This was despite the fact that foreign journalists were in the audience and any questions and answers in Japanese would have to be translated into English for Blatter. FCCJ member Joel Legendre-Koizumi stood up in the middle of the press conference to blast the organizers for their discriminatory decision, and I later tackled the issue in the Japan Times. It became a spectacular own-goal for the World Cup organizers.

With two major sporting events the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Olympics on the horizon, one would think organizers would try to avoid such faux pas, but it seems many organizations haven’t made much progress. The 2020 Olympics Administration organization has made such a mess of things that I don’t need to recap it here.

And it seems that the organizers of the Rugby World Cup are headed in the same direction. The recent performance of the Japan team in England was one of the major feel-good sports stories of the year, a PR gift from the gods. And the impact at home and abroad was astonishing. Wouldn’t the Japan Rugby Football Union (JRFU) want more of this lovely publicity?

MAYBE NOT. SOME YEARS ago, a senior Japanese rugby official confessed, “We’re just a bunch of amateurs at the JRFU.” Sadly, that may be too true of their media relations staff judging by the fiasco they made of Eddie Jones’ recent appearance at the FCCJ.

Soon after Japan’s national rugby team’s spectacular performance at the recent Rugby World Cup, the FCCJ’s Professional Activities Committee (PAC) staff asked the JRFU if coach Eddie Jones, captain Michael Leitch, fullback Ayumu Goromaru or any other team member could speak at the Club. Jones had spoken at the Club a year ago and we were confident he would like to speak again, especially as his time as coach was ending and he was due to leave Japan in a matter of days.

The answer from the JRFU spokesperson was, for a long time, nothing. Emails went unanswered, as did several telephone calls. Finally, we were told that Jones would have no time for us, and that if we wanted a player, we should contact their respective teams. As it was a great opportunity for rugby to get more exposure, the curt “can’t help you” was disappointing and surprising.

A couple of FCCJ members suggested contacting Jones directly, so PAC staff duly sent off an email. Jones responded positively, agreeing to speak at the Club on Oct. 31, the final day of his contract with the JRFU. Terrific.

Well, it was terrific until JRFU officials heard about it and asked us to cancel Jones’ appearance. When contacted, Jones said he didn’t want to cancel the event, so PAC staff told the JRFU the Club would go ahead. The JRFU contact then accused the Club of arranging the event without trying to contact them, a blatant untruth, and asked that the Club cancel the event with the added proviso that the members shouldn’t be told the reason, since it was the Club’s fault for not following procedure. Huh?

Curiously, the JRFU then arranged a press conference for Jones the man with no time at the National Press Club, and then asked us to move our press conference to Nov. 2. Luckily, Jones agreed.

His appearance was one of the biggest press conferences of the year at the FCCJ. No longer under JRFU “supervision,” Jones could say what he liked, which was that rugby in Japan is in a mess and, by implication at least, they need to work on their PR, an opinion that while not particularly new was a powerful message considering its source.

Put simply, sporting events like the FIFA World Cup, the Olympics and the Rugby World Cup need input from all sides and all sorts, including journalists. Without that, we’ll be seeing more fiascos like the Olympic Stadium and the 2020 logo. It’s clearly time for Japan and the hosts of the 2019 Rugby World Cup to grow up on the PR front.

Fred Varcoe is a Chiba-based freelance journalist.