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Damian McKenzie keen on cross-border competition between Super Rugby and Japan

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Toru Hanai/Getty Images)

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All Blacks and Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath star Damian McKenzie is eager for a cross-border competition between Super Rugby Pacific franchises and Japan Rugby League One clubs.

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McKenzie is currently playing for Suntory one a season-long deal after having joined the Tokyo-based side following the expiration of his last contract with New Zealand Rugby [NZR] at the end of last year.

The 26-year-old is highly likely to return to New Zealand following the League One campaign, and he made it clear on a conference call from Japan earlier this week that if he is to return home, he would undoubtedly link back up with the Chiefs.

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Closing in on his 100th Super Rugby match for the Hamilton-based franchise, McKenzie is also League One’s leading point-scorer this season, helping guide Suntory to the summit of the competition standings.

As such, the 40-test All Black is well-placed to comment on Super Rugby Pacific and League One, and how they could cross paths in future.

After having experienced both competitions and witnessed the ongoing progression of Japanese rugby first-hand, McKenzie told reporters said it would “be a great idea”to pit League One and Super Rugby Pacific teams against each other in some capacity.

“I think it’d be great for the game,” McKenzie said on a conference call alongside Wallabies midfielder and Suntory teammate Samu Kerevi.

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“Obviously Japan’s a country that’s developing in their rugby. You just have to see in the last Rugby World Cup the success that they’ve had.

“Even just watching the Japanese rugby over here, it’s getting better every year. The calibre of players is getting a lot better. Like I said, it’s probably a little bit less physical over here, but the speed of the game is really quick.

“I think it’d make for an exciting sort of brand to be able to go out and involve Japan in some way or another. If that happens, it happens, but I think it’d be a great idea.”

McKenzie said Japan’s top clubs would hold their own against franchises from New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific Islands, even if it would take some time for teams to deal with various contrasting styles of play.

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“I think they would manage fine. It would just take a while, I guess, to adapt on playing Japanese teams every weekend, being able to adapt to playing a New Zealand or an Aussie team, Moana Pasifika, Fijian Drua,” McKenzie said.

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“I guess for a start, it’d take a little bit to adapt, but once you got into the routine of things, I’m sure they would manage this fine.”

The concept of Japanese clubs squaring off against teams from Super Rugby Pacific in an Asia-Pacific-type competition has been touted for some time.

League One managing director Osamu Ota, formerly the Top League chairman, revealed last year that discussions were underway between the Japan Rugby Football Union, NZR and Rugby Australia about bringing such a competition to fruition.

In the wake of Ota’s comments, Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights head coach Robbie Deans threw his support behind the concept, claiming a cross-border competition between the three unions are “inevitable” in the future.

Suntory boss Milton Haig echoed Deans’ sentiments, saying such a league would draw interest from fans and would make sense financially.

The Kiwi-born coach, formerly in charge of Georgia, even suggested that Japan would be open to including South African teams in any future competition involving New Zealand, Australia and Pacific Island sides.

“You would think that, from a marketing point-of-view and a financial game point-of-view, that would be something that would be a natural process,” Haig said earlier this week.

“Obviously the Sunwolves have been in Super Rugby before, but a lot of the teams are owned by multi-national companies.

“I’m not saying that they’ve got big pockets, but certainly it’s an opportunity for the companies to get their brand a little bit further globally, and if that’s on the back of rugby, well then that’s got to be a pretty smart marketing opportunity for them.

“I would think that, from a cross-border situation, both Australia and New Zealand – even South African sides – we’d probably welcome the opportunity to gain some market share in Japan and vice versa.”

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