Japanese scouts eye Toopi

Two high-flying Japanese rugby scouts including Hitoshi Iijima the head coach of Top League club Sanyo Wild Knights descended on Whakatane yesterday to scout former Warrior Clinton Toopi.

Long-time league star Toopi is trying his hand at rugby union after returning to New Zealand from a stint with Leeds Rhinos in the Super League.

For the past three weeks he has been turning out for Whakatane Marist in the Eastern Bay club competition while he finds his feet in the 15-man game.

He is looking for a contract and his manager, Peter Brown, arrived at Rugby Park with the Japanese scouts to watch Toopi in action yesterday.

The officials refused to give their names and Toopi, when asked what club they were from, simply offered "no comment".

But Sunday News understands they are from top Japanese side Sanyo.

"I think they were just here to see how I'm going on the rugby field," Toopi told Sunday News.

"Obviously they know what I've done in league and I guess they just wanted to see whether I can play the game.

"Over the last couple of years there have been a lot of league players who have made the switch to union and not too many have made great gains.

"From their point of view, it was just a case of seeing where I'm at really."

After the match, Toopi, Brown and the Japanese officials spoke briefly.

The former Kiwis star said the scouts told him they wanted to see videotapes of his next two games for Whakatane Marist.

"At this stage, I've got no deal or anything," he said. "They said they wanted me to keep working on my game.

"We've left it at that for the moment. I'm open to all options.

"They've seen me have a run now and they want me to play a couple more games and then send the tapes over to them in Japan."

Toopi said he was "loving" his switch to rugby but said he still needed to work on several technical aspects of the game.

"It's been an unbelievable experience and it's been awesome because I've been surrounded by some great players," he said.

"(Long-time New Zealand Maori coach) Matt Te Pou and guys like him are down here and they've been teaching me the skills of rugby.

"The technical side of the game has been probably the hardest part for me. I've still got a lot to learn.

"I definitely think, based on my brief experience with rugby, I have what it takes to play the sport professionally.

"We had a few easy runs in the first couple of weeks but today we only managed to win 13-12."

If a deal doesn't surface in Japan, Toopi said he wouldn't rule out playing for the Bay of Plenty Steamers in this year's Air New Zealand Cup.

Sunday News