Japenese rugby showing its strength on the world stage

George Smith of Sungoliath in action during the Japan Rugby Top League playoff final match between Suntory Sungoliath and Toshiba Brave Lupus at Prince Chichibu Stadium on January 27, 2013 in Tokyo, Japan.
George Smith of Sungoliath in action during the Japan Rugby Top League playoff final match between Suntory Sungoliath and Toshiba Brave Lupus at Prince Chichibu Stadium on January 27, 2013 in Tokyo, Japan. Getty Images

HOW times are changing.

It's hard to believe, but one of the most important markets for southern hemisphere rugby is actually located in the northern hemisphere.

Japan is the future of rugby in Asia, and an important growth engine for the game in that most important of regions.

The fact that Japan has been awarded the 2019 World Cup, and is a destination on the IRB Global Sevens Series (won last weekend by South Africa) is indicative of how important the IRB sees this country.

In addition, not only are high profile players rejuvenating their careers via Nippon, but Japanese players are making names for themselves in Super rugby.

With George Smith, Sonny Bill Williams and Hugh McMenimen doing so well in their returns from stints in the Japanese Top League, Wycliff Palu is looking for an opportunity there.

And he won't be the last.

Rugby in Japan has come a long way in a short time.

While the code has a history in Japan of more than a hundred years, it is only over the last 20 years, and, even more so in the last 10 years, that the game has become professionalised and hit the consciousness of the general public.

Traditionally, rugby in Japan has been strong in the university system and through company leagues.

Rugby programs/teams were funded and managed by and for employees of the major multi-national corporations like Sanyo (now Panasonic), Mitsubishi, Canon, NEC and Nippon Steel (my former team).

It made for a challenging relationship between teams and union, with the Japan Rugby Union owning the competition, but all the power being in the hands of the clubs.

This has seen the game under-achieve domestically and internationally.

The corporations saw their teams as marketing/PR/HR-type initiatives, with all players having to be employees of each company.

I had a work space, Japanese business card, went to office parties, but never 'worked' (although I went to the office Monday to Friday) for Shinnetetsu (Nippon Steel).

Even in this amateur competition, all foreigners were professionals.

Some of these rugby programs are better funded than Super Rugby programs, and even many national rugby programs.

Although funding is important, it is expertise and understanding of the game, team dynamics etc, that make for successful programs.

The company leagues, also meant that the coaching staff etc, had to be employees of the company, which made for some very, very, very interesting training sessions and overall programs

This amateur model has changed over the last ten years with foreigners and Japanese players, coaching and strength and conditioning staff alike, offered rugby-specific contracts.

The three regional amateur competitions have been centralised into one single professional national competition, the 14-team Japan Top League.

As we are seeing now, it is a very effective system to either rejuvenate or launch a rugby career.

Players such as Smith, Williams, Brad Thorn, and McMenimen have all benefitted from a stint in the near north.

And with Shota Horie (Melbourne Rebels) and Fumiaki Tanaka (Highlanders) making their way from Japanese rugby to the Super Rugby, there are definitely some good things going on with rugby in Japan at the moment.

For the foreign player, life and rugby in Japan is a wonderful experience.

Your program will be very well funded, your coaches and strength and conditioning experts will be from high profile national or Super Rugby programs.

You (comparatively speaking) play less games, the games are less physically demanding, you have a lot more recovery time but more training, you are very, very, well paid and get to experience the excitement of a different culture.

There are a lot of positives coming from Japanese rugby, and it's only the beginning.

Follow Slatts on twitter @pjslatts

Topics:  george smith japan rugby union

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