22-year-old Isaac Lucas represented Australia for two seasons at the Under 20s level but shifted to Japan when COVID struck and is now thriving in an entirely new environment.
Lucas isn’t the first young Australian to make the move to the Land of the Rising Sun, with the trio of Dylan Riley, Jack Cornelsen and Ben Gunter all being named in Japan’s national training squad ahead of next June’s historic clash with the British and Irish Lions in Scotland.
That’s not likely to be Lucas’ future, but the young Queenslander is enjoying his time in Japan and using the opportunity to learn from some of the best in the game.
Australia has been shorn of some of its top talent in recent years with many seasoned players making the move to Japan, where the competition isn’t quite as strenuous but the pay is still considerable.
The likes of Michael Hooper, Bernard Foley, Will Genia and Samu Kerevi are all based in Japan for 2021 while there’s a slew of foreign talent from around the world who have also set up shop in the nation that hosted such as successful Rugby World Cup two years ago.
Alongside Foley, test-level first five-eighths such as Quade Cooper, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Cruden and Hayden Parker are all making waves in Japan – and Lucas has had the opportunity to rub shoulders with all of them.
“In one of my first pre-season trial games over here, we played against Kintetsu and Quade was their No 10,” Lucas tells The XV from his apartment in Tokyo. “Then a couple of weeks later, we went to Suntory, so I was up against Beauden. Then it was Hayden a few weeks after that.
“There are some amazing players over here that have been really good to come up against – guys that I’ve obviously watched growing up – so to get the opportunity to play against them and compete against them has been really good.
“[Kintetsu players Cooper and Genia] were great; after the game we had a good chat. They checked in on how I was going and that sort of stuff. It was great to see them and just have a little chat – it’s special to have those connections over here.”
That’s been the real beauty of Lucas’ time in Japan to date – coming up against players from across the world led by coaches who have cut their teeth everywhere from South Africa to the UK. It’s inevitably meant that every team has a different style of play depending on the resources they have at their disposal.
I pride myself on my running game. That’s a point of difference for me, so that’s one thing I want to keep on improving on and not shying away.
Isaac Lucas on his greatest strength
Ricoh Black Rams, where Lucas is based, is bolstered by the likes of All Blacks loose forward Elliot Dixon, Wallabies flyer Joe Tomane and former Brave Blossoms Shuhei Matsuhashi and Michael Broadburst.
The exceptional talent on offer in Japan that Lucas has played both with and against has been invaluable for 22-year-old who, by his own admission, is still really just learning his craft.
“I’m a bit of a sponge at the moment, just trying to soak everything up,” he says. “It’s so different to Australia and there’s something different each week, so I’ve really enjoyed it.
“The goal for this season was just to make sure I’m improving individually. That has a flow-on effect for the team, I want to be playing my best footy, I want to be improving. I know there’s a lot of improvement in my game to be had.
“I think at Ricoh, with the coaches and players I have around me, I have the tools to do exactly that. We’ve got [former Waratahs and Wallabies wing] Peter Hewat as our attack coach, and we’ve been able to sit down and put a plan in place for a few specific areas I want to improve.
“I pride myself on my running game. That’s a point of difference for me, so that’s one thing I want to keep on improving on and not shying away. Also just working on my game management and kicking game has been a big thing that we’ve spoken about and I do feel like I’m making improvements. I know it’s not going to happen overnight, so it’s been good to just keep on working away at it.”
That’s undoubtedly been fast-tracked by Lucas’ return to his favoured No 10 position, having spent plenty of time covering fullback for the Reds and the Australian Under 20s side.
“I played most of my junior footy at No 10 then my first year at fullback was actually that 2019 year for the Reds,” says Lucas.
“Over here, I enjoy playing 10, you just get a few more touches and sometimes with the line speed, you don’t get as many touches at fullback. I’ve really enjoyed my footy at 10 and I think that’s where I like to play but, in saying that, I’m more than happy to fit in wherever the team needs – whether that be 10 or 15.”
If Ricoh’s performances in this year’s competition are a yardstick for how Lucas has performed, there’s it fair to suggest that the young flyhalf has made good on his aspirations for the season.
Last year, Ricoh managed just two wins from their six matches after the season was cut short due to COVID, finishing up in 12th place. The ongoing global pandemic has cut their season short for a second year in a row, with the Rams set to play in a quarter-final match against Suntory Sungoliath – home of Barrett, Kerevi, Sean McMahon, Tevita Li and Yutaka Nagare – this weekend before a number of their players were infected with the coronavirus, ultimately forcing them to forfeit.
Still, Lucas is on the books for next season and will be looking to take his side even further into the competition when the new professional league kicks off in 2021.
Of course, It’s impossible to discuss Lucas’ time in Japan without touching on the decision that brought him there in the first place – one which admittedly struck a few nerves in Australia.
That was one of the tougher decisions in my life. Obviously playing with those guys that you’ve grown up with, making the transition into professional football, it was so special and it’s such a good group at Queensland.
Lucas on the decision to head to Japan
The young utility back was one of three Reds players who were unprepared to renegotiate their contracts with the Super Rugby side after COVID struck early last year, instead choosing to end his time with the team early and head off-shore.
Izack Rodda made the move to France but will link up with the Western Force next year while Lucas and Harry Hockings headed to Japan.
“That was one of the tougher decisions in my life,” Lucas says. “Obviously playing with those guys that you’ve grown up with, making the transition into professional football, it was so special and it’s such a good group at Queensland … It was hard to give that up but, looking back on it, I’ve got no regrets.
“I’ve got a lot of appreciation for what Thorny and the coaching staff there had done for me. Obviously, there was disappointment from both parties and I can understand all that [uproar] – there was probably not too much sport happening at that time so it was a bit more highlighted.
“But I’m comfortable with the decision I made and I’m still very close with the team, my teammates, I’ve kept in contact with them. I’m very proud of some of the players like Fraser [McReight], Tate [McDermott] and Harry Wilson who got their test debuts last year. I was absolutely stoked.”
A major factor in Lucas’ decision to head to Japan and Ricoh specifically was the to play alongside his older brother at the Tokyo-based club, former Waratahs and Brumbies halfback Matt Lucas.
With Lucas Senior nearing the final years of his career, running out together in the halves jerseys is an opportunity that likely wouldn’t present itself in the future if the younger brother hadn’t made the switch to Japan at the time he did, and one he’s hugely thankful for.
That doesn’t mean he’s done with Australia altogether, however.
I’m obviously here until early 2022 so I’m just looking to play good footy here and I’m not really too focused about the future at the minute.
Lucas on his long-term ambitions
“I’ve definitely got ambitions and goals that I still want to achieve,” Lucas says – suggesting that the glimmer of Wallabies gold could see the youngster back in Australia in time for the next World Cup.
“I definitely haven’t ruled anything out, but I just wouldn’t say it’s at the forefront of my mind at the moment. I’m obviously here until early 2022 so I’m just looking to play good footy here and I’m not really too focused about the future at the minute.
“I have ambitions but, at the moment, I’m just looking to really dive into things in Japan.”
Undoubtedly, teams from across the globe – not just in Australia and Japan – will be keeping an eye on Lucas next season.
The utility back looms as a potential triple threat of the highest order, with the ability to run, pass and kick alongside the best in the business.
Players like that don’t simply grow on trees and Wallabies coach Dave Rennie will be hopeful that he can lure the playmaker back to Australia at the end of his contract in Japan to link up with some of the other developing talents in the country.
But, as Lucas says, that’s a decision for another day.