LIAM DEL CARME | Why southern hemisphere rugby is indebted to Japan

Rugby players from all over the world are flocking to gain experience in Japan - and are reaping the benefits

01 April 2024 - 21:45
By Liam Del Carme
Fourie Du Preez turns out for Suntory Sungoliath in a Japan Rugby Top League playoff final match against Toshiba Brave Lupus at Prince Chichibu Stadium in Tokyo in January 2013
Image: Adam Pretty/Getty Images BIG IN JAPAN Fourie Du Preez turns out for Suntory Sungoliath in a Japan Rugby Top League playoff final match against Toshiba Brave Lupus at Prince Chichibu Stadium in Tokyo in January 2013

The debt Test rugby, especially in the southern hemisphere, owes Japan is hard to quantify. The game's apex platform is played with such speed, ferocity and intensity that it arguably has the biggest impact on top players’ longevity.

Of course the premier domestic competitions around the world can also be taxing, but Japan has provided a diversion from that highway to destruction. Much of the Japanese way of life is built around serenity, tranquillity and respect and players coming from western-leaning cultures find themselves quickly at ease. Players with a curious disposition find they are quickly entranced.

Because the Japanese league has always been played outside the Super Rugby window, players from the Antipodes and South Africa gravitated there. Playing in Japan Rugby League One, or any iteration it was known as before, has been like an extended visit to an onsen, or hot spring spa in that country.

Dan Carter, Tony Brown and George Gregan played in Japan, while Springboks' Jaque Fourie and Fourie du Preez followed.

Du Preez's experience at Suntory Sungoliath brought the league into sharper focus. His Test career seemed over in 2011 once the Springboks were knocked out of the Rugby World Cup by Australia in an ill-fated quarterfinal. When he left for Tokyo his then 62-Test Bok career appeared over.

However, two years later Du Preez stepped off the bench and delivered a master class, as the Springboks crushed Argentina 73-13 at Soccer City.

He pulled all the right strings, but what was most striking about his game was the speed of his delivery. While one of the hallmarks had always been the deliberate and methodical way he spread his genius around the field, Du Preez operated like a souped-up Tokyo drifter. He attributed the renewed spring in his step to the benefits of playing in Japan.

That trend has continued for players who have gone to Japan over the past decade. Such was the pulling power of the league that the New Zealand Rugby Union relaxed some of the All Blacks eligibility requirements allowing special dispensation for players to compete in Japan.

SA Rugby too has been more lenient in allowing their top players to earn a living elsewhere. Those who opt to play in Japan, as opposed to Europe, have it better. They earn well comparatively, they have a shorter season, which pleases the national coaches, and they play in a league where their bodies aren't perennially drawn to the trenches.

Recently Springbok lock Lood de Jager spoke of how idyllic he and his family finds it outside Tokyo where he plays for the Panasonic Saitama Wild Knights. He holds family time dear and the Wild Knights, who allow their players a considerable amount of downtime, are accommodating. Playing in the Japan Rugby League One has also allowed him to get up to speed as he fully put the heart condition that kept him out of the RWC behind him. In another top rugby league that might have been more difficult.

Equally, for All Backs talisman Ardie Savea moving to Japan wasn't just about the rugby. The environment is such his wife and three children are happy too.

The food and experiencing a new culture,” he said about the draw cards. “The footie is pretty class here too. There are really good players here. It has been mentally refreshing. Hopefully that pays dividends come All Blacks selection time.” At 30, he feels he has more to give the All Blacks cause.

Japan isn't just a place that celebrates the rising sun. In a rugby sense, players can happily push back their sunset.