Foreign players still a vital part of developing Japanese rugby

While sport today is very much a borderless concept, the development of major sports in Japan has often appeared to lag behind the rest of the world. While Japanese sports haven’t always existed in isolation, at times it has seemed that sports in Japan should remain as “Japanese” as possible. Slowly the Japanese have recognized that playing sport with the rest of the world can be a positive thing and having elements from the rest of the world contributing to sport in Japan does actually help the development of Japanese sports.

Of course, many sports were actually introduced into Japan by foreigners, following the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Soccer, baseball, tennis and golf all have a long history in Japan, as does rugby union, but it is only recently that Japanese rugby has come to embrace the foreign player and the foreign coach and the effect has been dramatic.

When you hit rock bottom, you can only go up and the record 145-17 loss New Zealand inflicted on Japan at the 1995 World Cup was the ultimate wake-up call for the national team. After defeats to Scotland (100-8) and Wales (98-0) on a European tour in 2004, Japan caved in and hired a foreign coach, Jean-Pierre Élissalde to try and bring Japanese rugby into the modern world. That didn’t go according to plan but when New Zealander John Kirwan took over in 2007, things started to pick up.

Kirwan opted to leave in 2011 and Japan brought in former Australian coach Eddie Jones, who they’d tried to hire before Élissalde. Although Jones was half-Japanese, when it came to rugby, he was 100 percent no-nonsense Australian and he led Japan to an impressive three victories at the 2015 World Cup, including one of the biggest upsets of all time when Japan beat South Africa. Jones was succeeded by Jamie Joseph who sustained Japan’s success at the world level.

The introduction of foreign coaches to Japan was only one element of their success; the introduction of foreign players was equally important. The number of foreign-born players in Japan’s 1995 World Cup squad was four. In 2011 and 2015, helped by weak international eligibility rules, it was 10. At the time, the International Rugby Football Board only required a player to be resident in a country for 36 months to allow them to represent that country (it’s currently 60 months), so it was easy for players to move to a country – especially a weaker country that needed good players – and represent that country.

The formation of Japan’s professional rugby league, the Top League, in 2003 made Japan an attractive place for rugby players to ply their trade and was made even more attractive for some with the possibility of representing Japan on the world stage. Japan is now one of the go-to places for international rugby players to play. Some only come on short-term contracts, but others have more long-term ambitions.

At least 20 players from the 2023 World Cup have been signed to Japanese clubs, including South Africa’s iconic scrum-half Faf de Klerk, who plays for Yokohama Canon Eagles. Others from the team to win the last two World Cups include Jesse Kriel, Pieter-Steph Du Toit, Damian de Allende and Cheslin Kolbe.

One of the biggest coups this year has been the signing of All Blacks captain Sam Cane by Suntory Sungoliath, although Cane has said he only plans to stay for one season in Japan before returning to the Chiefs in his home country. He’ll be joined by compatriots Aaron Smith, Beauden Barrett and several other All Blacks, one of whom, Dane Coles, has canceled his retirement to play in Japan for Kubota Spears. Coles has played 90 times for the All Blacks and will replace South Africa’s Malcolm Marx, who will miss the season with a knee injury.

Wales fly-half Gareth Anscombe has committed himself to playing at least two years in Japan for Suntory Sungoliath, while English fly-half James Grayson of Northampton is also heading to Japan. They shouldn’t feel lonely as Japan’s professional clubs hoover up some of rugby’s finest talents from other countries. Several clubs have at least a dozen foreign-born players on their books.

But Hitoshi Iijima, the general manager of the Panasonic Saitama Wild Knights, has warned against looking to foreign stars as a quick fix for Japan’s clubs. “While having the marquee players is important and something contributing to our league, we have to look at how we can develop our local players and how we can develop some foreign players who come to Japan at a young age and are growing up in this country,” he said earlier this year. “We all need to look at these different perspectives and keep the good balance between them.”

In addition to players, many foreign coaches are leading Japan’s pro teams and rumors are rife that Eddie Jones is heading back to Japan to take over the Brave Blossoms national team.

Apart from recruiting great overseas players and coaches, one thing Japan needs to improve is interaction with foreign teams. Since the demise of Super Rugby team the Sunwolves and with COVID limiting games, Japan has been starved of international rugby. Earlier this year, Japan and New Zealand signed an agreement to work together on the commercial side and the playing side. It should result in more games being played between the All Blacks and the Maori All Blacks and Japan’s national teams between 2024 and the next World Cup in 2027. New Zealand clubs the Chiefs and the Blues are expected to take on club teams in Japan in February next year. A similar agreement has been signed with Australia.

In an interview last year, Kensuke Iwabuchi, the chairman and CEO of the Japan Rugby Football Union, summed up Japan’s frustration: “The biggest thing is to open up more opportunities to play the top competition. Japan only had one game against Tier 1 nations between 2007 and 2011. But before the World Cup in 2015 we played five, and before 2019 we played 10 games against Tier 1 nations. There is a clear link between the experience of playing with top competition and success. Providing such opportunities is important in order to broaden the group who compete at the top level.”

While Japan is admired throughout the rugby world, it has been frozen out of joining the rugby world’s big competitions. Some good PR from the large foreign contingent in its domestic game and a strong 2027 World Cup in Australia could finally see Japan play on the stage many believe it should already be on.

© Japan Today