Lure of Japan strips vital layer from All Blacks
As more and more top New Zealand rugby players head to Japan to ply their trade, Marc Hinton investigates the impact on our game and ponders the pulling power of the All Black jersey.
Look at the names and try to quantify what has been lost: Jerome Kaino, Richard Kahui, Adam Thomson, Isaia Toeava and Anthony Boric. They're just the tip of the iceberg, but they've become typical of the New Zealander heading to Japan to continue his rugby career, rather than hang around and try to fulfil All Black ambitions.
Those five players have a few things in common. They've all either moved to Japan over the past few years, or are about to do so. They've all done so in the middle of their All Black careers. And they've all become, or are about to become, a heck of a lot wealthier thanks to the incredible money that now abounds in the game over there.
New Zealand rugby needs to ask itself if it now has a major problem on its hands. Or rather, does it have more of a problem, because high-level Kiwi rugby players have always been in demand globally, especially since the game went professional?
The short answer is yes, for the simple reason that Japan appears to be stripping a layer of players from the New Zealand game that we've always prided ourselves on our ability to keep.
New Zealand rugby has long accepted it is going to lose late-career All Blacks keen to finish things off with high-paying offshore gigs, be it in Japan, the UK or Europe. Likewise, we've also come to terms with the loss of middle-tier players.
But what we are seeing now in growing numbers are either All Blacks, fringe All Blacks or potential All Blacks bolting long before they've got near fulfilling their test potential.
That weakens the depth of the elite pool in a sport that exacts a huge physical toll. It's even more of a concern for Super Rugby because it removes players who have intrinsic value to their franchises and are in many ways the life and soul of that level of the game.
"We don't want to lose any players to Japan, but we understand that their market is a good one at the moment," says All Blacks coach Steve Hansen. "It pays good money and it's attractive because there's not as many games, or the same intensity."
The physical aspect of the Japan stint is arguably the key component in its attractiveness as a destination to players. It's no coincidence that Boric and Kahui have both jumped there in the wake of career-threatening injuries; or that Thomson would drag a body worn down by years of being first to the breakdown to a less exacting place.
The huge money helps, sure, because the Japanese game is underpinned by mega corporations with literally billions of dollars they are compelled to put back into their "communities". Rugby, luckily, falls into that category, and the upshot is that Sonny Bill Williams can earn $1 million for playing a handful of games; and that Ma'a Nonu can sacrifice his off-season because the extra money he earns in a few short months in Japan is the equivalent of adding years to his career.
"Players perceive it as being a lot easier than going to France or England, where they play a lot more football, so that's quite appealing to your Adam Thomsons when they've had a big workload for 10 years and they're looking to earn some dosh without having the same workload," says Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph, who knows the Japanese game intimately, courtesy of eight years with the Sanix club.
Former All Black Brad Thorn is just back from a two-season stint with Sanix, and agrees the truncated nature of the Japanese season holds massive appeal. The top league goes for just 13 rounds - though they do have a long pre-season - and, as Thorn notes, "I was able to clear rucks with my hands". He looks at players like Boric and Kahui, coming off major injuries, and understands their desire to move into a game with lesser physical impact. But like everything there are downsides, warns Thorn.
"There are teams that are well drilled and teams that can struggle. My team struggled a bit. They have a certain way of doing stuff, and you need to adapt to that. I loved my time, but the rugby tested me a bit because I love to compete and it sometimes can be frustrating."
Joseph concurs. "You get different challenges in Japan. You don't get the physical challenge, but you have to live in Japan, you have to live in a society you're not used to, where you can't communicate, and that can be quite difficult, particularly for the partners."
Clearly if the price is right - and Thorn says the money is "big" over there - players are prepared to make the lifestyle sacrifices. And we would be fools to think that Boric and Kahui are the last of our quality performers heading that way.
That's why Blues and former Japanese national coach Sir John Kirwan is adamant New Zealand needs to embrace it, not fight it. "I'd like to see something like the ITM [Cup] extend to the Japanese so we can get them involved with us, rather than losing people, or bring them in with the Super 15 and maybe have like a Heineken Cup situation, because we need to embrace the wealth that's over there. They've got 20 of the biggest companies in the world investing in rugby, so we need to do it before someone else does, because they love New Zealand, and love New Zealand rugby players.
"How we do it I don't know, but I think there's an answer if we all put our heads together."
Thorn can see a situation fast developing where a stint in Japan could actually resuscitate a career, rather than end it.
"A guy like Anthony who's a great guy battling away with some bad injuries, it's an opportunity for him to play some footy over there, get paid well, experience something different, and in a couple of years with the footy not quite as physical, maybe the body gets to a decent place and these guys come back."
That's the upside, reckons Thorn.
A Tamati Ellison returns refreshed and re-energised and makes the All Blacks. Mose Tuiali'i does likewise and fills a massive hole at the Highlanders. It's something Kaino is no doubt already pondering.
So, where does that leave the mythical black jersey?
"The main difference I'm seeing now is players are willing to go a lot earlier, and not necessarily wait around for their opportunity to be All Blacks," says Joseph. "That would suggest the black jersey is not as valuable as I think it should be."
Kirwan isn't so sure. "I think it still keeps a lot of guys in the country, then, when they feel they might not make it, they take off."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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