Ex-England flanker James Haskell has some words of warning for the increasingly significant number of English players heading to Japan. Haskell’s globetrotting career saw him join the Tokyo-based Ricoh Black Rams in late 2011, featuring in eleven Top League games before moving on to Super Rugby’s Highlanders. 

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Now with George Kruis and Alex Goode poised to join Freddie Burns in sealing a switch to the Far East, Haskell has made it clear that playing in Japan is no “holiday camp” as the major companies funding many of the teams expect a huge return on their investment.

Haskell told RugbyPass: “If you can go there, play twelve games and miss most of the pre-season, then it can be a great experience. But pre-season in Japan lasts longer than the actual league season and it’s not a holiday camp – they work you hard.

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RugbyPass gives rugby fans a taste of what life is actually like in Japan in Operation Jaybor

“When I first went there I thought I would be a Godzilla-like character knocking people out of the way, but a lot of Pacific Islanders are playing in Japan and suddenly you are standing next to a 125kg Tongan. 

“Each team has superstars who are usually massive units while the Japanese love commitment and there is nothing more committed than diving at someone’s knees to knock them down. 

“It’s hugely physical in the tackle area and I remember Ma’a Nonu being hit by the replacement hooker and I thought he had done his knee ligaments after being chopped in half. Thankfully he was okay.

“The English players don’t have as much exposure in Japan but what the teams and fans want is for you to show your commitment and there is pressure to perform. The pre-season is massively attritional and the motto at Ricoh when I was there was ‘more is better’. 

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“I sat down in my first meeting with the coach and a translator and I tried to give him an analogy about a Range Rover Sport and while it may be good for off-roading, if you’re driving it across the desert every day it will fall apart. He just smiled at me. The training sessions were two-and-a-half hours long!

“You have up to 60 players in a squad – my number was 63 – and the companies are closely linked to the team. In Kobe, when the steel company that backs the team was struggling, they started to link more closely with the rugby team being coached by Wayne Smith. 

“The players went to games in factory workers’ clothing and Smith ensured the team reconnected with the company. They signed Dan Carter and they won the league. At Ricoh, we had twelve professionals and the rest of the players were coming off their bicycles into training.”

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Doing your homework properly about where the team you have signed for plays in Japan is also important. Haskell was based in Tokyo with a population of nine million and found the city expensive.

Goode is expected to play for NEC Green Rockets who are based in Chiba, a city of 970,000 people. Out-half Burns will be playing for Toyota-owned Shokki Shuttles In Nagoya and if Gloucester boss Johan Ackermann does make his rumoured move to NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes he will be living in Osaka. 

“The culture is great in Japan and financially it depends which team you go to because some of the country is remote and some guys won’t have done their homework and research,” continued Haskell.

“Tokyo is hugely expensive. I flew over before I signed and saw the house I was being given. It was a two-floor pink place with a small bath. You also got a bicycle and it was 30 minutes by bike to the station. 

“It’s a big move. If you can immerse yourself in the culture is it great, but don’t try and learn Japanese. It’s a very difficult language to learn and that makes it hard.”

Players heading to Japan will also find unusual items on dining menus, Haskell admitting to having eaten cod sperm during his time there. “I did eat cod sperm. It was just as you would imagine – sort of warm, salty and not very nice.”

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