Historically, the path to playing professional rugby has followed a fairly standardised route. With rugby growing in popularity around the world, however, New Zealand’s young professionals are no longer required to follow such a regimented tradition.

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That’s certainly been the case for Hawke’s Bay’s Lincoln McClutchie who, after a breakout season for the Magpies in 2019, packed his bags and headed to Japan to link up with the Red Hurricanes.

The mass exodus of players from the Land of the Long White Cloud to the Land of the Rising Sun has become part and parcel of the modern rugby landscape, so for one more player to head east is hardly a surprise.

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Lincoln McClutchie playing 7s with Hastings Boys High

What makes McClutchie’s move so unusual, however, is that he’s still just 21 years old.

Japan’s Top League started out as a destination for professionals who had reached the twilight of their playing years – although we’ve now seen a few players spend some time mid-career there too. McClutchie, on the other hand, is one of the first to head to Japan just as his career is kicking off – but he’s certainly not done with rugby in New Zealand.

“I wasn’t actually too keen when the contract first popped up,” McClutchie recently revealed to RugbyPass.

“Moving away and leaving family and friends was probably the main reservation but I also just wanted to stay in a good environment for rugby. I was just thinking I still needed to develop more to be able to move over and stuff like that.”

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Like many people around New Zealand, McClutchie has grown up with an understanding of the traditional rugby model that the top club players earn provincial contracts and then the top provincial players are rewarded with a spot in a Super Rugby side – that’s how you improve, that’s how you increase your chances at getting selected.

That model has been turned on its head in recent years with school alumni earning Super Rugby contracts and sometimes skipping one or two rungs on the ladder altogether. The standard progression may work for some young men, but it’s certainly not a one-size-fits-all situation.

With a bit of prompting from those around him, McClutchie realised that a move to Japan would be good not just for his development as a rugby player, but for his development as a person.

“My Hawke’s Bay coach had a good chat with me and told me that there’d be some good blokes over [in Japan],” McClutchie said. “I could go over, learn a bit off them, experience some different coaching and still return to New Zealand if I wanted.

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“A few friends and family members were also telling me ‘it’s better if you just go, bro, and see what it’s like.’

“I thought it would be a good experience for me just to get out a bit, experience different rugby, experience different life culture and just meet new people. I’m quite young still, so basically just get out there and just see what’s out in the world, really.”

The fact that the first five was offered the contract in the first place should come as no surprise to anyone who’s witnessed him play over the last five years. He had a superb season with Hawke’s Bay in 2019, guiding the side to a Championship final against Bay of Plenty.

McClutchie was also a member of the stacked Hastings Boys’ High School team that made two national finals in a row (winning the competition in 2017) and was joined in last year’s Magpies side by a number of his fellow title-winners, including Folau Fakatava, Devan Flanders and Kianu Kereru-Symes. Those two exceptionally successful years with Hastings meant that the playmaker was earmarked for greater things and he didn’t disappoint in his first full-time season with the Magpies.

His attacking instincts were clear for anyone to see in Hawke’s Bay’s run to the Mitre 10 Cup final last year, with one superb solo try-scoring effort against Waikato still doing the rounds on social media.

His performances for the Magpies weren’t enough to completely entice any Super Rugby sides, however – although the Hurricanes did offer McClutchie a training contract.

That bad fortune is how the then-20-year-old found himself on a plane to Osaka and, despite the initial trepidations, McClutchie was blown away by the support he immediately received from his new Red Hurricanes club.

“They helped me out quite a bit, set me up and when I got there, I was actually quite surprised how good it was really,” said McClutchie.

While the club wasn’t loaded with internationally-capped foreign players like some of the other teams in the Top League, there was one particular player who McClutchie was especially looking forward to working with: Super Rugby title winner Marty Banks.

“I thought he was real good eh, old Marty Banks?” said McClutchie.

“He was an easy to approach kind of guy and really open too. He would take time out of his day to come and help you out.

“On the field, I was kind of just watching him really, just trying to be a mirror of him and just watched how he did things and how he explained things and tried to see what he sees. I made the most of it. I thought he was really good to me.”

Banks has followed a relatively unusual pathway himself. He completed his schooling at Christchurch Boys’ High School before heading north to play in the North Harbour club scene. Not long after he got stuck in with Takapuna, Banks found himself running out for Russian side Krasny Yar before returning to New Zealand to take up contracts with Buller, then Tasman, the Hurricanes and eventually the Highlanders, who he kicked a clutch penalty for to help secure victory in the 2015 Super Rugby final. Stints in Italy and Japan followed not long after.

Banks, one of rugby’s most travelled players, was equally impressed with his young protégé as McClutchie was with his mentor.

“Linc is a talented young footballer, he plays on instinct and enjoys having a crack, no matter the situation,” Banks told RugbyPass.

“Watching him during Mitre 10 Cup last year, it was clear that with more exposure to that level and higher he is going to develop into a quality footballer.

“In Japan, it could sometimes be hard to see that flare as we were under the pump a lot of the time but I’m really looking forward to watching his career develop over the coming years.”

The Red Hurricanes won the Top League’s second division last year and were promoted into the top flight for 2020. Their local players’ lack of exposure to top teams coupled with the side’s relative lack of foreign talent meant the Osaka-based club was always going to have their backs up against the wall and were on the wrong side of some hefty scorelines – but those are the kind of matches that build character.

“There were a few good teams in the league and I think we were still really in development mode, just building and kind of just reaching the standard required to be in that top-level,” McClutchie said.

“It was challenging at times but I thought the boys did stick to their ground and we did do our best at moments, but I just thought the boys were still developing.”

In Japan, McClutchie focussed particularly on improving his kicking game and settling on a technique he’s comfortable with (with plenty of assistance from former All Black Jon Preston) – which he’s hopeful will help him secure a more permanent contract, either in Japan, or back home in New Zealand.

As with any young Kiwi rugby player, the ultimate aim is the black jersey.

“For sure, that’s the long-term goal – but I’m kind of just going with the flow,” said McClutchie.

“I’m still trying to train hard and just keeping my head to the ground. The next goal is just playing Super Rugby, getting a few caps under the belt, and seeing what happens from there. If it doesn’t work out for me, then I’ll head back overseas and try to play rugby as long as I can, really.”

It’s an unusual route – far different from the path that players of yesteryear would have traversed – but it’s a path that gives young players some long term clarity that there are careers in rugby for skilled athletes of all levels, even if they don’t quite crack a Super Rugby team on their first try.

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