Ask any avid New Zealand rugby follower what springs to mind when they cast their mind back to 2011, and you will receive an almost unanimous response.
That was the year the All Blacks broke their World Cup hoodoo on home soil, the year Stephen Donald earned cult hero status, and the year the Crusaders nearly defied every expectation of them as losing Super Rugby finalists after playing every game away from Christchurch.
But, for former All Blacks lock Isaac Ross, 2011 was the year he put an end to his playing career in New Zealand.
After bursting onto the international scene as a fresh-faced 24-year-old in 2009, the eight-test second rower spent two seasons in the international wilderness before opting to open the next chapter of his rugby career in Japan.
There he took with him his wife and two children, then aged three and one, as he signed on with Top League club NTT Communications Shining Arcs.
Since then, his family has not only grown with the addition of two more kids, but they have fully integrated themselves into the Japanese lifestyle, and Ross has made no secret of his desire to stay put.
“I’ve got four boys, and to have the ability to raise them here in Japan, it’s been second-to-none, to be honest,” the 35-year-old told RugbyPass.
“We live just outside of Tokyo, having a bit of city life, and then going back for off-season, we reside in Wanaka, so that’s been a life we’ve been pretty fortunate to have.”
It’s a way of life that has come under threat, though, as a result of an obscure Top League rule that has effectively called into question the validity of Ross’s status as a Japanese citizen.
Despite having held a Japanese passport since 2017, Ross is still considered a foreigner under a Top League law introduced in 2016 that has banned internationally-capped players from overseas who have obtained Japanese citizenship from being recognised as a local player.
Anyone who played rugby for another country and acquired Japanese citizenship prior to August 31, 2016, such as ex-Wallabies forward Daniel Heenan of the Panasonic Wild Knights, is deemed Japanese in the Top League.
However, because Ross achieved Japanese citizenship after that date, his eight test appearances for the All Blacks means he remains a foreigner.
Consequently, the former Crusaders, Highlanders and Chiefs lock falls under the Top League’s foreign quota, part of which limits teams to fielding up to two internationally-capped foreign players at any time.
Other aspects of the quota allow teams to have three foreign-born players who currently are or could become eligible to play for Japan and one Asian passport holder on the field at the same time.
Japanese passport holders who haven’t played for another country don’t fall under any of these restrictions, however, which has led to teams fielding as many as 11 foreigners at any time.
Ross believes that defeats the purpose of having the rule that prevents him from being registered as Japanese, which he says was brought in to protect players eligible to represent Japan.
“We’re playing up against teams that sometimes have nine, 10, sometimes 11 players that are of foreign descent, but it sort of contradicts when they want to defend and protect the domestic players,” he said.
“Only 20 percent of them are actually home-grown Japanese when some teams field an actual squad.”
Ross added that companies, the owners of Top League clubs, have cited financial pressures of having foreign-born players in their squads as another reason behind the implementation of the rule.
He highlights the ongoing recruitment of global stars – such as Beauden Barrett, whose upcoming one-season deal with Suntory Sungoliath is believed to be worth around NZ$1.5m, which would make him among the world’s highest-paid players – as another point of contradiction behind that reasoning.
The impact of the constant drive into the offshore player market is something that Ross hasn’t been immune to, with NTT Communications Shining Arcs signing World Cup-winning Springboks hooker Malcolm Marx and Wallabies playmaker Christian Lealiifano for the 2020 season.
The addition of both players meant Ross’s game time was severely limited earlier this year, as only two of the three foreign test stars could take the field at the same time.
Had he been considered a Japanese player, Ross would have been able to play alongside Marx and Lealiifano freely under no restrictions, but the implications of his foreign status now leaves him without a club.
“NTT decided not to renew my contract because I’m an internationally-capped foreigner, and they’re looking in a different direction, and a lot of other teams have that same mentality,” Ross told RugbyPass.
“However, they’ve alluded to the fact that… if I was Japanese, and if I was able to register as a Japanese player, then that’s a whole different ball game.”
Ross revealed several teams from across Japan have since expressed interest in signing him for next season, provided the rule is changed to allow him to play as Japanese.
“You don’t want to look for the sob story, these times are hard for a lot of people, but that’s the reality for us. We’re no longer contracted here in Japan,” he said.
“These guys [the Top League] haven’t announced [if] a rule change is going to happen, and if they do change, then we’ll have the ability to stay, but if they don’t, then our journey here in Japan is finished.”
Given his commitment to the country – as evidenced by the six-year process he underwent to gain Japanese citizenship, an achievement few Top League foreigners strive to complete – it would be an underwhelming way for Ross to end his nine-year stay abroad.
“We’ve committed to Japan and we’ve decided to leave our home countries and make a life over here and, like I said explaining the passport situation, it’s no easy feat.
“When the rule was initially announced, I appealed the ruling and it was rejected.
“We moved on from that but the past couple of years, they have continued to loosen other foreign player regulations while staying firm on ours despite the fact it no longer makes sense and infringes on our rights as Japanese.
“We gave up our citizenship of our own countries to become Japanese, and that’s probably the biggest thing for us,” he said, before adding: “It feels that we’re the ones that are getting punished for our loyalty.
“It’s a heavy pill to swallow to have to represent your own country and then getting punished for your loyalty [to] Japan.”
Compounding Ross’s frustration is the fact that he is one of only three players in the entire competition that the rule affects.
The others are ex-Australian sevens representative Brackin Karauria-Henry, of NTT Communications Shining Arcs, and former New Zealand sevens and Maori All Blacks loose forward Colin Bourke, of Ricoh Black Rams.
Their involvement in the situation makes the predicament even murkier considering both have been part of Japan’s extended sevens squad in preparation for the Tokyo Olympics.
World Rugby regulations allow players to transfer their national allegiance from one country to another provided they play a certain number of Olympic qualifying tournaments and hold a passport for the country they wish to represent.
Both players have run out for Japanese invitational sides, but are yet to be officially capped for the Japan sevens team.
Once they do, they would meet World Rugby’s requirement of switching nationalities, thus becoming eligible for the Brave Blossoms, and only then will they be deemed Japanese in the Top League.
However, with COVID-19 delaying the Olympics by a year and there being no certainty of the world’s biggest sporting event going ahead amid the global pandemic, their chances of being recognised as Japanese are slimming.
“I’m a bit pissed off the same group of people, they want me to play for them at the Olympics, and they want to pay me money to do so, but they won’t let me play for my club team as a Japanese player, which is where we earn our money,” Bourke told RugbyPass.
“We don’t get paid to play for Japan. It actually costs us a lot of money with transport and all that sort of s***. It’s a bit of a double standard. We’re trying to get their heads around how we see it as well, which is proving difficult.”
While they are hopeful their fight for a change in ruling will bear fruit, the prospect of potentially having to leave Japan, where – like Ross – their families are well-settled, due to their foreign status is a cause for concern.
“I’ve got five kids, they’ve all actually started school, the two oldest are going to full Japanese schools, so we’re happy where we are. It’s just the rugby side of things is sort of holding us back,” Bourke said.
“I’d want to keep playing here, but, as I say, if I can’t find work, then it’s probably back to New Zealand or another country and try find something.
“I’d definitely love to stay as long as we can.”
“If the Olympics is cancelled and they don’t change this rule in our favour, it’s going to be very difficult to re-sign or find another opportunity in Japan because we’re still a foreigner, we’re still capped,” Karauria-Henry added.
“The way the rules are, it would be difficult for us to re-sign with the club or get an opportunity somewhere else.”
It’s an issue that Deane Kebblewhite, a rugby fan and long-time resident of Japan, is calling to be resolved.
Kebblewhite created an online petition for the law, which he described as “discriminatory”, to be overturned earlier this year.
“When this rule first came in four years ago, there was maybe a total [of] 100 [foreign players] across all the teams,” he told RugbyPass.
“As it stands now, according to Top League’s own website, there’s just over 200 foreign players now, so that number has doubled in four years.
“Why they’re allowed to sign these guys is because [they are] ‘currently eligible or future eligible for Japan’, so even if they just move here today, they’re classed as ‘future eligible’ because they’re not capped overseas.
“Japan will count those guys as future eligible, so they’re allowed to get game time that these three guys won’t. They definitely add to the quality of the Top League, but most of these guys aren’t going to be here long enough to ever meet the World Rugby eligibility requirements.
“It’s just all kinds of hypocrisy and discrimination. They are legally Japanese in every way, but the moment they pull on that Top League jersey, they are foreigners again because of some made up rule by the JRFU.”
Whether or not the Top League will change the rule remains to be seen, with a Japan Rugby Football Union spokesperson telling RugbyPass the issue “is still under discussion” and that a decision about the ruling would be made at a board meeting “in due course”.
Regardless, Ross has taken a philosophical approach to what could be the closing stages of his time in Japan.
“If this is the time for our journey to finish, we’re comfortable with that,” he said.
“Once I got past 30, I was always considering that I was punching in the bonus rounds, so every year has been a gift for us. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity of being here so long.
“We’ve always been prepared to move on, nothing is long-term in rugby. We love Japan, we’ve raised our family here, the kids are fully bilingual and we made a commitment to this country by changing citizenship. Our boys just recently had their Japanese citizenship granted.
“We’re trying to give them an opportunity, potentially, if they want to come back to Japan later in life, they don’t have this problem.
“At this stage, as a capped foreign player, my rugby career in Japan is over due to the rule. However, I have an amazing opportunity to move on offshore, so the dream is not yet over.
“But, for now, we are just trying to amend a rule so us, and others like us, who gain Japanese citizenship and wish to play in Japan as a local, won’t suffer the consequences in the wake of the honour of representing their previous countries at the highest level.
”Especially considering we live in a country where the tradition of honour still runs deep and is something to be celebrated.
”We hope that the JRFU and Top League see it that way too.”
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