15 Jan 2021

Playing rugby in Japan: 'It's no longer just about the money'

7:48 am on 15 January 2021

Former Crusaders and Wallabies coach Robbie Deans believes foreign players are no longer just in Japan to line their pockets.

Brodie Retallick playing for Kobelco Steelers, 2020.

Brodie Retallick playing for Kobe Photo: PHOTOSPORT

The Japan domestic rugby competition was scheduled to start this weekend but with increasing positive Covid-19 tests within the league, organisers said they were now aiming for a mid-February start.

Last year's season was cancelled entirely because of the pandemic.

There is a large contingent of foreign players set to play including many New Zealanders.

Beauden Barrett has taken a sabbatical in Japan this year, joining another seven All Blacks from the 2019 World Cup squad playing there.

In fact there are 14 current or former All Blacks, 10 current or former Wallabies and eight current or former Springboks playing in the Japan Top League this season.

Deans has been coaching in Japan since 2013, heading north after finishing his six year stint with the Wallabies, and in that time has helped the Panasonic Wild Knights to three national titles.

The 61-year-old has seen a dramatic improvement in the Japanese domestic game in that time.

"The game up here is unrecognisable from when I first arrived and the obvious result of that is the performance of the Japanese National side at the last two World Cups."

The Japan Top League has a completely different set-up to other domestic competitions around the world and Deans feels while some foreign players may initially find it a challenge, they do eventually embrace it.

"The system here is unique, it's basically funded by the companies who don't do it for profit, they do it for the values that come out of the game which then get translated across the company and their workforce."

Half of Deans' Panasonic Wild Knights team is amateur.

"It's a great balance, a great mix and it's good to be a part of because it retains an element of purity from the past."

"We had a player here, the winger Timoki Kitagawa, who scored a hundred Top League tries, but never became professional, instead preferring to limit his playing career and then going into the corporate sector."

While there are 153 overseas born players in the Top League this season, only five foreign players can be named in a match-day squad, while only two international Test players are allowed to be on the field at any given time.

That means many of the overseas players aren't playing every week and Deans uses his foreigners to help develop the locals.

Having said that foreign players do enjoy the opportunity to be playing in what is a global mix.

"It's stimulating for the players to have the opportunity to play with and alongside an international opponent that you've previously been going toe to toe with."

"Also the mix of amateur and professional really captures everything that is special about the game," Deans said.

So it's not just about an easy pay cheque?

"I'm sure for some of these guys they're essentially banking, but generally those days are long gone... you have to turn up and you have to perform because the Japanese are very circumspect and if you don't have the work ethic that they do then you'll stand out... they can smell an impostor from a hundred yards."

Panasonic Wild Knights coach Robbie Deans.

Robbie Deans Photo: PHOTOSPORT

While the rest of the world may watch the Japan competition and see all of the international players involved, Deans says for the local fans they're more excited about seeing the top Japanese players performing.

"The local players are rock stars."

The 2015 World Cup, when Japan beat South Africa, catapulted many of their players into mainstream thinking in the country.

One of those was fullback Ayumu Goromaru who shot to stardom with his 24 points in the Brave Blossoms 34-32 win over the Springboks.

"They are genuine rock stars domestically, there was one game last year when 35 thousand turned up to watch a game and the fans weren't there to see All Blacks or Wallabies or Springboks, they were there to see the Japanese players."

This year in the first stage of Japan's top-tier domestic competition, the 16 Top League teams are scheduled to be divided into two conferences to determine their seedings for the second stage.

A total of 20 teams, including four from the Top Challenge League, will be split into four groups of five teams in the second stage. The top two teams of each group proceeds to the playoffs.

Panasonic, Suntory, Yamaha, Kobe and Toshiba have been the prominent teams in recent years.

Beauden Barrett has joined Suntory Sungoliath, Ben Smith, Brodie Retallick, Aaron Cruden and Richard Buckman are at Kobelco Steelers, Ryan Crotty is at Kubota Spears, Matt Todd, Tim Bateman and Tom Taylor at Toshiba Brave Lupus, Kieran Read at Toyota Verblitz and TJ Perenara at NTT Red Hurricanes.

Beauden Barrett during his official presentation as new player of Suntory Sungoliath in Tokyo, Japan.

Beauden Barrett joins Suntory Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Twelve of the 16 clubs have overseas head coaches, eight of whom are New Zealanders.

They include Deans at Panasonic and Todd Blackadder at Toshiba, while Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen are involved at Kobe and Toyota respectively.

"Historically there are a half a dozen teams that have been powerhouses, but courtesy of the influx of top foreign players and the lift in standard of local players its going to be competitive every week."

Deans says what tends to be the difference between the sides is the standard of the local players and its his job to develop them to a competitive standard.

"The foreign players historically tend to cancel each other out so it becomes the ultimate team game."

"Recruitment is an inexact science and it's a challenge here, historically players had to complete university before they could play Top League but that is changing and players are being signed up while they're still studying... yes the local players are invariably the point of difference."