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'Japan should be our greatest friends': Kiwi coach's plea to NZR

By Sam Smith
(Photo by Koki Nagahama/Getty Images)

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A Kiwi coach in charge of a Japan Rugby League One club has called for New Zealand Rugby [NZR] to become “greatest friends” with the emerging rugby nation.

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The rebranded and revamped League One, formerly known as the Top League, kicked off its inaugural season over the weekend with a slew of foreign and domestic talent on deck for the opening round of the competition.

All Blacks playmaker Damian McKenzie and ex-Wallabies star Israel Folau were among the standouts in the new league, which has become fully-professional and continues to garner hype in the wake of the 2019 World Cup.

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Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath vs Toshiba Brave Lupus | Japan Rugby League One
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Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath vs Toshiba Brave Lupus | Japan Rugby League One

That tournament, which was hosted in Japan and saw the Brave Blossoms reach the quarter-finals for the first time in their history, was widely-regarded as a ground-breaking event for the development of rugby in the country.

It’s for that reason that former All Blacks fullback Greg Cooper, now head coach of the Mitsubishi Sagamihara Dynaboars in Division 2 of League One, believes that NZR needs to capitalise on the momentum rugby is building in Japan.

Speaking to the Otago Daily Times, Cooper said NZR must embrace the growing interest in League One and find ways to collaborate with Japanese rugby.

“I’ve been saying for a while now that, if I was New Zealand rugby, the first national union I would be wanting to talk to would be Japan,” the former Blues, Highlanders, Stade Francais and Green Rockets Tokatsu head coach said.

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“They should be starting to think about how to work the Japanese rugby season in with the Super Rugby season.

“The top New Zealand rugby players can come over here and go back to New Zealand. We’ve seen players do that. That’s the way of the world now, and the way it has to be.

“New Zealand’s economy cannot sustain where, potentially, professional rugby is going.

“To me, Japan should be our greatest friends in terms of rugby, and we should be doing everything possible to link in here.

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“It’s not about seeing Japan as a threat. It’s about finding ways to work with them.”

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Cooper’s vision for cross-border fixtures between Super Rugby Pacific and League One teams could be realised if reports that plans to do just that come to fruition.

League One managing director Osamu Ota – who, at the time, was Top League chairman – revealed last May that discussions were underway between NZR, Rugby Australia and the Japanese Rugby Football Union to create some form of club competition.

Ota added that there was plenty of work still to be done for such a concept to become a reality, but Cooper maintained that NZR has plenty to gain from that idea as “there is phenomenal interest in rugby in Japan” which is “only going to get bigger”.

“I think this is seen as the momentum builder again. I think it’s a massive moment for Japanese rugby,” Cooper, who played seven tests for the All Blacks in 1986 and 1992, told the Otago Daily Times.

“They are clearly ambitious. They’ve made the top eight at a World Cup. And the Japanese mentality is very much: OK, where do we go next?

“In the old days, they might have been satisfied with a quarterfinal. Not now. They want to make more history. One day, I think they genuinely want to win the Rugby World Cup.”

Cooper’s Dynaboars side, which has a strong New Zealand contingent headlined by ex-All Blacks Colin Slade and Jackson Hemopo, will kick-off its League One campaign against Quade Cooper’s and Will Genia’s Hanazono Kintetsu Liners on Monday.

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