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Jack Cornelsen: 'I don’t have that many bad things to say about him'

By Liam Heagney
Japan's Jack Cornelsen (Photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images)

It’s amazing how it has all worked out for Jack Cornelsen, a left-field two-week trial becoming a seven-year stay in Japan that has no end in sight just yet for the 29-year-old. Along the way the Australian became Japanese-eligible, debuting versus the British and Irish Lions and he has since gone on to start three matches at the recent Rugby World Cup in France. Sweet.

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He quipped that all these accolades haven’t yet given him the top bragging rights at home: His dad Greg was the famed scorer of four Wallabies tries in their 1978 Bledisloe Cup win over the All Blacks at Eden Park, footage that is wheeled out annually on TV when it comes to that fixture’s renewal.

Still, the boy who seemed destined to miss out on a professional rugby career has done good, very good, and his success should be celebrated as a case study about how you can live your dream without emerging through the conventional pathways.

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Growing up, Cornelsen always aspired to make it. For instance, his very first Instagram picture shows him in his school uniform striking a pose with Sonny Bill Williams who was on 2012 Super Rugby duty with the Chiefs. The Super route never opened up for Cornelsen. Instead, the NRC became his lifeline, two campaigns with Queensland Country prising open an invite that became the making of his rugby career.

Kiwi Robbie Deans, for sure, still has plenty of Australian detractors after the way his stint in charge of the Wallabies finished. However, his local intel produced a rich harvest that is still paying a healthy dividend for the Panasonic Wild Knights.

Fixture
Japan Rugby League One
Saitama Wild Knights
20 - 17
Full-time
Yokohama Canon Eagles
All Stats and Data

Cornelsen, Dylan Riley, and Ben Gunter were all plucked from Australian obscurity at around the same time and they have all gone on to play for Japan after earning their stripes on the club circuit with the now Saitama-based club.

“He has been massive for me individually,” enthused Cornelsen to RugbyPass about Deans, who has given Panasonic a decade’s service since exiting the Wallabies. “Probably a lot of small things when I first came over he picked up and got me to work upon.

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“Just ways of thinking of things that I hadn’t really thought of, or little skills that he would tap you on the shoulder and get you to work on those. There were things I first noticed that were quite different from how I had been coached before.

“He is so good on and off the field, allows guys outside training to get away, see their families, he is massive on that side of it and just on getting guys closer together. He is the best coach I have had around. I don’t really have that many bad things to say about him.”

Please elaborate on those little pep talks. “One of them was about positioning in defence in terms of where you want to set up when you get off the line in terms of pulling attackers in and not allowing them to have different options. To shut down their options was one of the things initially I remember off the top of my head got into me about a bit.”

So, roll the clock back, how does an Aussie go about getting a two-week trial with an overseas club? “It was through Robbie in terms of getting that trial. I don’t know how it first initiated but I was finishing up uni and it kind of just came through and I jumped at it I guess. It must have been the end of 2016 when I first did that trial and was mid-2017 that I started full-time.

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“I just didn’t get the opportunity to play Super coming out of school and going to uni. I was just playing club footy at the time, finishing my uni degree when the opportunity to come over here first started.

“It was a two-week trial to start and that just grew into another trial and then a contract. It was more just getting the opportunity over here and I was like, why not try a different culture, different country? It just grew from that and I have been here seven years.”

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Before Cornelsen joined, Deans had completed a hat-trick of titles with the Wild Knights. They were denied repeating that feat last May, losing out to Kubota Spear in the final, but they have hit back as strong as ever this term and they head into next weekend’s semi-final on the back of completing their fourth unbeaten regular season in the last five campaigns.

Yokohama Canon Eagles were their latest victims, the Wild Knights picking up a 43-14 win on the road, and they will now host the same opposition next Saturday at home at the Kumagaya in Saitama.

Following last year’s play-off crash, Cornelsen is reading nothing into his team’s latest unbeaten run. “We know that it is all restarting again. Anything that happened last week goes out the window going into this game. We’re pretty happy with the job we have done so far but that does mean nothing going into next week.

“Defence is what we focused on through the year and we are really seeing dividends paid there. The previous we have been more of an attacking team that can defend but defence has definitely been more at the forefront this year and we are just looking to continue to grow there. It’s probably just a thing we needed to put a bit more focus on,” he explained, going on to talk about the ambiance of the game in Japan.

“I’m sure the players on each team get up facing us, especially when we are going through undefeated this year. There is definitely a bit of a target on our back. Like we know that but in terms of fans, it’s probably the opposite.

“Opposition fans, there is not like a love/hate thing there. They just all support every team and that is a big difference compared to other places in the world where it can be a bit more hostile. Playing away you don’t feel like you are in a hostile environment; they just seem to support.”

Panasonic have proven to be the club of Cornelsen’s career, the home from home that has been the making of him in foreign climes. Without a doubt, he loves it even though putting weight on and adjusting to the fitness requirement of a game much quicker than he was used to were initial teething issues.

“I’m loving it. From when I first got here, it’s one of the reasons why I wanted to come over, just to be in a new culture, somewhere different. It just feels normal now and I have been loving it. It’s the place that gave me the chance to play professional rugby. Without them, I don’t know if I would be playing professionally.

“The longer I have stayed here the more I have loved it both in terms of Japan and at the clubhouse with the Panasonic team. It’s just a good group of guys, a lot of young families that help my wife and young daughter. There is just a good support crew in terms of the staff off the field. Away from home, that’s quite important.

“The language was definitely quite hard to initially get into, and just the workload and the amount of training definitely took a bit but there was quite a good group of older, foreign guys. There was Berrick Barnes, Dan Heenan. There were quite a few guys who took me under their wing and just helped me get through that initial stage and from then just got more used to it and grew through that.

Cornelsen Wild Knights
Jack Cornelsen in action for Panasonic Wild Knights in January (Photo by Kenta Harada/Getty Images)

“Trying to put weight on was a goal through the S&Cs. It’s always a goal to continually put weight on. I’m about 110kgs now, pretty happy around that. And I guess the deep shock first coming over was the fitness side of it. A lot of boys when they first come over, it’s something you notice, how quick the game is. That definitely did take a bit to get used to as well.”

Reflecting on his time in the Far East, Cornelsen expressed his delight that the calibre of marquee signings have shot through the roof, including his current engine room partner Lood de Jager. “That has been one of the big changes from when I first came over here. Japan having success helped and it has snowballed and continued to grow from there.

“There has been a feast of big-name stars come over and the fans want to see those guys. That’s only going to continue to help with that for sure. There were always big players here when I first came but just the number of those has gotten massive – and it’s world-class players and probably more playing with these world-class players.

“In the time I have been here, we have had Sam Whitelock, Dave Pocock, world-class players that you can just see how they go and do things, and we have got Damian de Allende and Lood de Jager now. There are a number of world-class players and that just helps us all individually grow as well.

“Lood is just good value to have. In terms of me, he has helped with the lineout. I kind of run the attacking side of it but having him there he pretty much does it as well. We’ve had him the last couple of years but the more times with him the more we have got to know him better. We are obviously loving having him here.

“He is one of the best locks around. On the field, it speaks for itself. It’s more the off-field, he brings value there. Stuff like playing golf and just getting away from the game, just being able to do stuff outside the fun side. He brings us all together and I’m sure that helps later on (on the pitch).”

We’ll know for sure about the value of this Wild Knights camaraderie in the coming weeks with the Japan Rugby League One season now at the business end. The Test season will kick into gear when it ends, but the feelers so far from new boss Eddie Jones have been limited.

“I haven’t had much to do with Eddie. Met him briefly but I’m sure there will be quite a bit going on there a few different changes,” said Cornelsen before reflecting on his 19-cap Test career initiated under Jamie Joseph, who stepped away after France 2023 failed to produce progress to a second successive quarter-final.

“We definitely wanted to make it further into the tournament, so not quite what we were after but in terms of myself, it was a massive experience. I loved being part of it but in terms of the team, we definitely expected to push a bit further into that World Cup.

“I have loved it, I have loved living over here and that was the next step, wanting to play internationally and play against the best teams and players in the world, so getting that opportunity and being able to play in the World Cup was massive. A dream come true. But my debut against the British and Irish Lions, that was a big one.”

Cornelsen turns 30 next October but there are no plans yet for the rugby afterlife. “I’m not too sure what I will do after. Hopefully, I have got a few more years of rugby to go. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. I have a business degree in property and development. I’m sure I’ll go down that road at some point but I’m not sure what that will look like. I haven’t really put too much thought into it.”

  • RugbyPass TV will be showing both Japan Rugby League One semi-finals live for free next weekend. Click here to see the schedule for the games involving the Wild Knights versus the Eagles and Brave Lupus against Sungoliath
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