The flow of Australian, New Zealand and South African players to Japan is nothing new to the game of rugby.
For the better part of thirty years, the Land of the Rising Sun has attracted some of the best athletes from around the world.
Japan’s culture has always been a massive pull-factor and the money on offer for even semi-professional standard players far trumps what’s been available in other countries.
For men who aren’t quite good enough to become full-time professionals in New Zealand, for example, but are still exceptional athletes, Japan has offered a legitimate career pathway.
In more recent times, the exodus of players heading to Japan has ramped up significantly, with professional stars erring towards making the move at the latter end of their careers as a way to wind down from the game while still making good money.
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The wider train of thought has always been that playing rugby in Japan is fairly easy on the body – at least compared to the rigours that one might be put through if they headed to the UK or France.
The irony, of course, is that so many players are heading to Japan now that that’s no longer the case.
Whether it’s locally raised Pacific Islanders who have made Japan their home for the long-haul or immigrants from around the globe, it’s becoming more and more difficult to avoid the behemoths, no matter where you set up shop.
That’s certainly been the case for former Wallabies midfielder Samu Kerevi, who’s well into his first season with the Suntory Sungoliath.
Kerevi sat down to talk with RugbyPass six weeks into the 2020 Top League season – and it’s still some of the men he’s dealt with previously that are causing him issues in Japan.
“Guys like Brodie Retallick and RG Snyman are big boys, man,” Kerevi said.
“I remember playing against Snyman in South Africa and I’m definitely not going to run into him again.”
Despite not quite measuring up to the likes of Retallick and Snyman, who both weigh in around 120kg, Kerevi himself isn’t exactly on the smaller side and would put many midfield backs to shame.
“Mikey Harris told me ‘mate, I left Super Rugby so I wouldn’t have to tackle guys like you,’” said Kerevi.
— Tom Vinicombe (@TomVinicombe) March 17, 2020
Still, it’s not the big men that Kerevi is having to adjust his game for – it’s the pace of the locals. Kerevi was warned in advance that the Japanese players were some of the fittest in the world but it still came as a shock when he arrived.
“I knew about it, but when I got here, I was like ‘Wow ok, these guys are fit,‘ Kerevi said.
“Sammy Talakai said their props are running close to five minutes on a bronco – I was only getting 5:10 back in the day!”
For those who haven’t had the misfortune of doing a bronco test, it’s a fairly simply but incredibly taxing shuttle run that comes in at 1200-metres all up.
Thankfully, Kerevi hadn’t slacked off since the Wallabies’ World Cup campaign came to an end in October.
“I was trying to be real fit when I came over and I was really happy to hit my targets when I got here,” said Kerevi.
“The best time I’ve now gotten for a bronco was when I was here so I want to set a really good impression. I didn’t want to show that I’d come from the World Cup and I was in bad nick.
“I really want to add to the legacy Suntory have. It’s a rich history, not just on the business side of things but in rugby especially.”
Anyone who tuned in to last year’s World Cup in Japan can attest to the leaps and bounds that the Japanese national team have made in the last four years and while some of the Brave Blossoms did make appearances for the Sunwolves in Super Rugby, most plied their trade in the Top League.
That same level of high-speed, high-quality execution that the Brave Blossoms came to be known by in 2019 has been nurtured at club level and, after seeing how well it came off during the World Cup, Top League sides have been pushing the envelope even further in 2020.
“Because the pace is so quick, you actually have to get more skilful,” said Kerevi.
“Japanese players are offloading off the deck, throwing no-look passes and doing cross-field kicks. They’re starting to look like Crusaders!
“Because they’re really fit, they already have the pace of the game. Physicality is still coming but because they’re so skilful and the pace is so fast… If you come up too hard on defence then they’ll just pass quickly and the guy on the outside will gas you.
“They’re real aggressive on defence and they’re putting all these little pieces together.”
That manic, high-intensity play can be hard to defend against – but it can also pose problems for the attacking team too.
“They don’t have any problem with work rate off the ball – sometimes they’re too fit,” Kerevi said.
“They over-fold or whatever because they’re too eager. That’s where the foreigners can help the locals understand the game a bit better.”
It’s not the Japanese players that Kerevi is enjoying playing with more on a regular basis, however.
The Top League is home to players from all across the globe – perhaps more nations are represented than in any other rugby competition in the world.
At Suntory, Kerevi shares a locker room with the likes of Matt Giteau, Tevita Li, Joe Wheeler, Sean McMahon and Will Chambers – but there are countless more players from NZ, Australia, South Africa, the Pacific Islands, the Americas and Europe scattered throughout the Top League’s 16 teams.
Hurry up Top League officialshttps://t.co/H9P7DGMibI
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 18, 2020
While the nation may have been a semi-retirement destination for players of the past, younger and younger men are now heading to Japan. Kerevi himself is only 26 years old.
Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock are both taking sabbaticals in Japan and will return to New Zealand in the future, but there’s a very real possibility that spots in international teams won’t be able to keep players in their home countries forever. As it stands, a number of the Springboks’ World Cup-winning side are now based in Japan but will continue to represent South Africa on the world stage.
Therein lies the threat, particularly for the Southern Hemisphere nations.
When the rugby is equally as challenging and exciting – just not quite as physical – and the money on offer is so good, why wouldn’t you consider spending a few years in a nation with as much culture and history as Japan?
We’re already seeing waves of players relocating to Japan and there’s no indication that the tide will change anytime soon.
“The rugby itself. Man, it’s competitive,” said Kerevi.
“You’d never think they’d be so into rugby but especially because of the World Cup, it’s crazy over here.
“Even the university competition is crazy – they had 60,000 people at the final.”
Local unions will be doing everything they can to keep their players turning out for their Super Rugby clubs but that’s getting harder and harder to do.
“I was telling the boys back home they’d better watch out. This might be the new Super Rugby.”
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