WELLINGTON, New Zealand—Japan’s professional rugby competition increasingly is becoming a magnet for the world’s best players and likely will become more attractive as the standard of the league rapidly improves.
Milton Haig, the New Zealand-born head coach of Tokyo-based Suntory Sungoliath, says the gravitation of top players to Japan likely will accelerate as the Japan League gains international credibility.
Japan has been attractive to overseas players for some time because it has offered high salaries, a relatively short season and, for some, a style of rugby which has been less physical than most professional leagues.
But the less-physical nature nature of the rugby also has acted a disincentive to players who feared a long stay in Japan might reduce their fitness for test and top-level rugby.
Haig says that is no longer the case. The impact of overseas players has to been to lift the quality and physicality of the league.
“With the quality of players and with Japan improving their performances at international level the whole competition itself has got a lot better,” Haig said. “Probably a few years back, it might have been a bit of a giggle. I know a lot of people used to say it was quick but there wasn’t a lot of physicality.
“Well I think that’s definitely changed now and I think one of the things that I’ve noticed since I’ve been here for three years is how physical the competition’s got, certainly at the breakdown and defense. Definitely that contact area is pretty serious these days.”
The organizers of the Japan league are highly ambitious. They hope to see cross-border competition between Japan clubs and Super Rugby clubs in the near future and, eventually, to see the league become the best in the world. The recruitment of top players and coaches is key to that.
Overseas players who are playing or recently have played in the league include the 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 get guys like Malcolm Marx, he’s 120 kilograms [264 pounds],” Haig said. “He likes that physicality area, he likes the breakdown area.”
“So, to actually move a guy like him who’s got pretty good technique around that area is in itself a bit of a job. So, you’ve got to use a bit of physicality to actually try to get rid of him. We spend a lot of time around the contact area, in attack and defense.”
Top players point to lifestyle and immersion in Japanese culture as other attractions to players who have chosen to take up contracts in Japan.
“I’ve come over here to Japan, I got here in December and I’ve loved it,” McKenzie said. “Suntory’s a great club, the Japanese people are so welcoming, so respectful and we’re lucky to have some great foreign lads here as well like.
“We’ve some great Japan staff and management and I really enjoy the rugby. Japanese rugby is getting better every year, the caliber of players is getting a lot better and it’s probably a little less physical over here but the speed of the game is really quick.”
Kerevi, who plays with McKenzie at Suntory, said Covid-19 has limited players’ off-field activities but Japanese and foreign players often mix outside rugby.
“It’s good to have a connection not just with the foreign players but with the Japanese boys, having a coffee or breaking bread over dinner,’’ he said. “If you really immerse yourself in the culture and the language you get the best of Japan.” AP
Image credits: AP