Japan rugby magnet for top players

WELLINGTON, New Zealand—Japan’s professional rugby competition is increasingly becoming a magnet for the world’s best players and will likely become more attractive as the level of the league improves rapidly.

Milton Haig, the New Zealand-born head coach of Tokyo-based Suntory Sungoliath, said the gravitation of top players to Japan is likely to increase as the Japanese League gains international credibility.

Japan has been attracting foreign players for some time as it offers high salaries, a relatively short season and, for some, a less physical style of rugby than most professional leagues.

But the less physical nature of rugby has also deterred players who feared a long stay in Japan would reduce their aptitude for testing and high-level rugby.

Haig says that is no longer the case. The impact of foreign players must be to improve the quality and physique of the league.

“With the quality of the players and Japan’s improved performance at international level, the whole competition itself has improved a lot,” Haig said. “Probably a few years ago it might have been a bit of a giggle. I know a lot of people said it was fast but there wasn’t a lot of physics.

“Well, I think that’s definitely changed now and I think one of the things I’ve noticed in being here three years is how physical the competition is, certainly at the level of breakdown and defense Decidedly, this contact zone is quite serious these days.

The Japanese league organizers are very ambitious. They hope to see cross-border competition between Japanese clubs and Super Rugby clubs in the near future and ultimately see the league become the best in the world. The recruitment of the best players and coaches is essential for this.

Foreign players who play or have recently played in the league include All Blacks Beauden Barrett, Sam Whitelock, Kieran Read and Damian McKenzie, Wallabies Michael Hooper, Samu Kerevi, Israel Folau and Quade Cooper and Springboks Pieter Steph du Toit, Willie Le Roux and Malcolm Marx.

“You have guys like Malcolm Marx, he weighs 120 kilograms [264 pounds]”Haig said. “He likes that physical zone, he likes the breakdown zone.”

“So moving a guy like him who has pretty good technique in that area is in itself a bit of a job. So you have to use some physics to try and get rid of him. We spend a lot of time around the contact zone, in attack and defense.

Top players point to the lifestyle and immersion in Japanese culture as other attractions for players who have chosen to sign contracts in Japan.

“I came here to Japan, got here in December and loved it,” McKenzie said. “Suntory is a great club, the Japanese are so welcoming, so respectful and we are lucky to have good foreigners here too.

“We have a great team and management in Japan and I really like rugby. Japanese rugby is getting better every year, the caliber of players is improving a lot and it’s probably a little less physical here but the speed of the game is really fast.

Kerevi, who plays with McKenzie at Suntory, said Covid-19 has limited players’ off-field activities, but Japanese and overseas players often mix outside of rugby.

“It’s good to have a connection not only with foreign players but with Japanese boys, having coffee or breaking bread during dinner,” he said. “If you really immerse yourself in the culture and the language, you get the best of Japan.” PA

Image credits: AP