Japan: Becoming the Epicentre of Rugby
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Japan is fast becoming the epicentre of world rugby with former Wallabies coach Robbie Deans declaring the Top League the “new destination of choice” because of its unique, back-to-the-future model and the country’s wholesome lifestyle.
With the world’s premier players and coaches flocking to Japan in droves, Deans says the Top League is rapidly approaching the standards of Super Rugby.
The 2021 season, kicking off this weekend, will feature no less than a dozen Wallabies, led by skipper Michael Hooper at Toyota Verblitz, All Blacks superstars Beauden Barrett and Kieran Read and six of the Springboks’ 2019 World Cup winners.
Twelve of the 16 clubs boast overseas head coaches, including Deans at the Panasonic Wild Knights and former Melbourne Rebels mentor Damien Hill at Ricoh.
Throw in the fact that Eddie Jones (Suntory), Wayne Smith (Kobe) and Sir Steve Hansen (Toyota) are on the payrolls as coaching consultants and the Top League is a veritable smorgasbord of talent, experience and smarts.
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“The standard’s good. It’s very good and it’s getting better and better,” Deans told AAP from Japan.
“From when I arrived up here [in 2014], it’s unrecognisable.
“You bump into players that you’ve coached and also coached against routinely over here. It’s hard to keep up with player movements, to be fair.”
The biggest improvement, Deans says, is player conditioning as a result of the influx of quality coaches.
“It’s an endless list of foreign coaches up here – international coaches across half the comp,” he said.
“You combine that with the IP that comes with internationals – current and former – but also Super Rugby players and now there’s an even more of a push from the north as well.
“Post the [Japan 2019] World Cup, the word is out on the quality of life here so there’s a lot of interest coming from the northern hemisphere for players to finish their careers here.
“It’s fascinating, really. We didn’t sort of come here with the intent to be here so long but we’ve enjoyed it and hence we’re still here.”
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What Deans finds most appealing – and intriguing – about the competition is the format and the spread of talent across the teams.
The 23-man match-day squads can only include five foreign players, with a maximum of two overseas Test stars.
“It’s a great mix when you have current internationals playing alongside each other where they’ve previously been competitors,” said the Crusaders’ five-times Super Rugby-winning coach.
“It’s an element that’s unique but it also captures an element of the past.
“So on our playing roster also we have a lot of ‘company’ players who are essentially amateurs so when they’re not training or playing the game, they have a day job.
“They go to the office and they’re upskilling for a career beyond their rugby career.
“So that very much captures the past. It’s a great earthing mechanism for the professional players.”
The Top League has very much a Barbarians feel to it, Deans said.
But don’t discount the toughness.
“The living proof of the standard lifting is the Japanese rugby team,” he said.
“If it’s not there already, it’s absolutely (reaching) Super Rugby level.
“But not across the whole comp. That’s not fair to say but if you take the top certainly six teams, they’d all be competitive in Super Rugby.”
Deans believes the Top League’s mystique – it’s almost impossible to see or read about it outside of Japan – is half the reason the competition is so successful and fast becoming “the new order”.
The teams are owned by billion-dollar corporations and making profits from their recreational sporting programs isn’t the motivation.
“In many ways, the model here is ahead of the game,” he said.
“We’re going through a bit of a reset now with COVID. But you look at professional sport, it’s a brief window.
“It’s not always perceived that way by those involved but the reality is you can only play, particularly a sport like professional rugby, for a short period of time.
“Yes, there is money to be made but it doesn’t cater for the rest of your days.
“So the model here is very much a blast from the past in so far as 50 per cent of the playing group have a day job. They’re preparing for the future and they have a job for life.
“And the reason there’s not a lot of profile beyond Japan is because the companies aren’t concerned about that.”
Companies have separate “corporate funds” in which to allocate to rugby, volleyball, football, baseball and American football.
“But it’s a recreational fund for the company and they do it for the values – the teamwork element – that they hope will translate across to the corporate sector,” Deans said.
“A lot of these people go into the corporation post-playing and the motivation is pure.
“So it’s stimulating but it’s also challenging. The rugby is tough but it’s getting tougher.
“Europe was the original destination that in the twilight of the careers that most coaches and players went to, but now this is becoming very much the destination of choice because of proximity and competitiveness now.”