Why former All Blacks – and some younger players – are choosing Japan over home

Money, convenience and the thrill of “a new challenge”” – reasons why Japan continues to be a haven for New Zealand’s top rugby players and coaches, according to some who have plied their trade there.

But it is not always easy. The language and some stringent customs require some adjustment, but the country remains an enticing prospect for New Zealand’s rugby fraternity.

Several marquee All Blacks departed for Japan following last year’s Rugby World Cup, either for sabbaticals or a transition into a post-test phase of their careers,

Nearly half of the All Blacks 15, which started last October’s Rugby World Cup final against the Springboks, defected north for the summer. Beauden Barrett, Richie Mo’unga, Aaron Smith, Ardie Savea, Sam Cane, Shannon Frizell and Brodie Retallick are all at the backend of the Japanese pro season.

Although hooker Codie Taylor is on a non-playing sabbatical, there have been reports this week he is in Japan talking to Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo representatives.

All Blacks coach Scott Robertson has also been there in recent weeks, casting an eye on the country’s rugby systems, acknowledging the symbiotic rugby relationship of the two countries.

Robertson is continuing to implore his employers to keep an “open mind” on potentially selecting players who are not currently in New Zealand.

But it is not just the top-tier stars who have set their sights on the country. Many players outside the All Blacks frame have opted to give Japan a crack, recognising the remuneration and pick-me-up of a new culture and environment as too good to pass up.

All Blacks head coach Scott Robertson

There are nearly 100 New Zealand-born players across the three divisions of Japan’s Rugby League One.

First-five Otere Black set sail for Japan in 2022, following stints with the Hurricanes and the Blues. The 28-year-old New Zealand Māori representative is now enjoying a third season with division two outfit Urayasu D-Rocks.

Black said he weighed up several factors before taking up a contract three years ago.

“Not going to hide the fact that the financial side of things here in Japan were a lot better at the time,” he said.

“I had a young child back then so my priorities had changed a lot more. It was also a new challenge and a new experience for me.”

The playmaker hinted he was entering a period which could be best described as ‘going through the motions’.

“I had been in the New Zealand rugby system for about eight years, sort of doing the same thing. I was quite keen to experience something different while I was still relatively young.”

The former Blues and Hurricanes pivot is one of nearly 100 Kiwi players in Japan’s pro league.

Former Crusaders and Hurricanes midfielder Tim Bateman enjoyed periodic stints in Japan between 2010 and 2022. He said there were several factors as to why Japan held such appeal.

“The type of rugby I play is a lot more conducive to a light, fast game in Japan, than it was to playing in Europe with guys that were twice my size and chasing kicks in the wet. It didn’t really suit my style.

“The big one really was Japan is a lot closer, with one flight to get home when you’ve got a young family up there. The seasons were shorter so you have more time off with the family”.

Bateman is unsure as to whether New Zealanders will continue to litter Japan’s pro rugby terrain, but he said he was observing a “growing negativity” around the union code.

“As a spectacle, it has work to do for sure because ultimately it is entertainment. But I think the narrative around it has become flat, which I think will only increase [the number] of people wanting to move away.”

Grant Dearns was a strength and conditioning coach for the Tokatsu Green Rockets for more than five years. Dearns, who has since returned to New Zealand to take up a role as Lincoln Rugby Club’s rugby director, said he loved his time over there.

But he admits there were some “strict societal norms” that took some getting used to.

“Some of our players were observed by the general public (riding bikes) with only one hand on the handlebars, one player had headphones on, one player was riding on the footpath and not on the road.

“The general public do it all the time, but as soon as a rugby player does it, we had emails to the club complaining about these rugby players.”

Grant and Warner Dearns.

His two-metre tall son Warner has now played 30 tests for the Brave Blossoms, four of them at last year’s Rugby World Cup.

Dearns’ 21-year-old son immersed himself in Japan’s rugby system as a high school pupil when the family made the move to Japan in 2016. In terms of the lure of the country for both top rugby players and coaches, he said it was obvious why it was a desirable destination.

“When you’ve got World Cup-level players playing third division rugby in Japan, and it’s not much better than good club rugby in New Zealand. You’ve got to ask yourself, ‘Why are they there?’

“The lifestyle is great, the experience is great, but they’re getting paid more than they would get in some other competitions.”

Fifty-six test All Black Mo’unga is reportedly being paid $2m per season at the Todd Blackadder-coached Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo. Fellow All Black playmaker Barrett earned a reported $1.5m for six months work during his 2020-21 sabbatical with Suntory Sungoliath.

Like the younger Dearns, Japan has provided a pathway to the top for the likes of former Highlander Craig Millar. The Dunedin-born front-rower has also donned the red and white hoops of the Japanese test team, after heading north more than six years ago.

He described the past few years as “a blur”.

“Playing at a Rugby World Cup, and playing international rugby is just something I never thought would be an opportunity for me,” he said.

“To do it in a place like Japan has been an awesome experience. It’s been an amazing few years of getting to play around the world and play in packed stadiums against international teams.”

According to the news on Radio New Zealand

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