Australian and New Zealand players joining Japanese rugby clubs

Yes, I’m turning Japanese

Yes, I’m turning Japanese


The recent signing by Hugh McMeniman to the Japanese rugby club Kubota Spears, the defection of league pinup boy Craig Wing to Mark Gerrard’s 2nd Division club NTT Communications, and the possible switch to union in Japan of ‘Special K’ creates a growing interest in what’s happening over there.

The Japanese have a professional Super 14 style competition called Top League. This was set up in 2003 by the JRFU with 12 teams but was later expanded to 14 in 2006. It’s designed to grow rugby union in Japan and to allow the national team, the Cherry Blossoms, to become more competitive.

The Top League runs from September through to February. The 2008 – 2009 series attracted around 400,000 punters to the 13 rounds and Finals series, which is called the Microsoft Cup. The standard is about Sydney’s Shute Shield level or Premier Grade in Brisbane. A base level contract for a foreign player is worth about A$100,000 + air fares, accommodation, car etc per season. Marquee players like Kefu, Larkham, Gregan and McMeniman can command upwards of $500,000. Nice little earner! However, the lifestyle is quite different with Japanese culture and etiquette a mile away from Willie Mason pissing up against a pub wall.

The professional rugby clubs are all owned by large Japanese corporations with most of the local players working for that company. It seems the imports, which are limited to three per club, are the only ones that don’t actually do too much ‘company’ work. From this year one of the three foreign imports has to be eligible to play for Japan and there is dispensation for recruiting an Asian player in each team as well. For instance, Craig Wing is half Filipino so qualifies as a local player.

There’s also the 2nd Division competition called the Top Challenge Series. There is a promotion relegation series involving two conferences, Top Challenge 1 and Top Challenge 2. There is automatic promotion for the teams that finished first and second in TC1, this year being Ricoh Black Rams and Honda Heat. They replace the teams that finished 13 and 14 in the Top League. The team that finished 3rd in TC1 and the TC2 winner take on the 11th and 12th Top League place getter respectively. 11th and 12th placed Kyuden Voltex and Fukuoka Sanix Blues both retained their Top League status.

Some well known hakujins (whitey’s) appearing in those games were Stephen Larkham for Ricoh, Sam Harris for Honda, Nathan Grey, Tim Atkinson and Tom McVerry for Kyuden, and Caleb Ralph for Sanix. Jone ‘Fingers’ Tawake and Troy Flavell are a couple of likely lads who feature in Div 2, for the Secom Rugguts and Mitsubishi Dynaboars respectively.

The four teams that contested this year’s semi-finals of the Top League Microsoft Cup were Suntory Sungoliath v Sanyo Wild Knights, played in Osaka and Toshiba Brave Lupus v Kobe Steel Kobelco Steelers in Tokyo (both in February). Sanyo won 32-22, which included tries by Hale T-Pole and penalties by Ryan Nicholas. Toshiba had a comfortable win over Kobe 26-7 with tries by David Hill and Steven Bates amongst others. Other players of note were George Gregan, Elia Tuqiri, Adam Wallace-Harrison and James Hilgendorf.

The Final was played between Toshiba and Sanyo on 8 February. Toshiba defeat Sanyo 17-6 to win the Microsoft Cup and were crowned league champions.

Top tryscorers in the Top League competition included Daniel Heenan, Tim Atkinson, Brett Stapleton and William Ryder, the Fijian flyer. Shane Drahm, Thinus Delport and Tony Brown were on the leading pointscorer list.

They have another competition after the Top League is finished. It’s a ten team knockout over four weekends called the National Championship. The teams are the top six in the Top League, the top two university sides, the winner of the Top Challenge Series and the top club team. There was a bit of a scandal this year when a player returned a positive drug test, generally unheard of in Japan. In typical Japanese fashion, Toshiba Brave Lupus withdrew from the tournament when the B sample for Christian Loamanu also tested positive to weed.

In the Final this year Sanyo 24 defeated Suntory 16 to become All Japan Champion. Suntory is of course where Eddie Jones is a technical adviser. Tony Brown was the Sanyo samurai who brought about the Sungoliath’s downfall.

I’ve only mentioned Australian or Kiwi players; however, there’s about 125,000 registered rugby players in Japan. The Cherry Blossoms have recently been playing in the Pacific Nations Cup where they cam 5th, last month Japan hosted the IRB U20 Junior World Cup and they have a very strong bid in for the 2015 Rugby World Cup. They have large modern stadiums, potential TV markets and a yen for sport. It looks like Japan is going to be a continuing popular destination for professional players in years to come.

If you wonder what happened to these blokes, they’re all in Japan: Leon MacDonald, Reuben Thorne, Jaco Van der Westhuyzen, Damian McInally, Joel Wilson and Radike Samo.

The 14 Top League clubs are: Sanyo Wild Knights, Toshiba Brave Lupus, Ricoh Black Rams, Honda Heat, Coca Cola West Red Sparks, Kintetsu Liners, Toyota Verblitz, Yamaha Subilo, Kobe Steel Kobelco Steelers, Suntory Goliath, NEC Green Packers, Kubota Spears, Fukuoka Sanix Blues and Kyuden Voltex.

  • Noddy

    Heeno was a leading tryscorer?

  • Jason

    Great post mate, very interesting. Unbelieveable, 6 years to establish a popular, competitive 2-tier domestic comp.

    And we had the ARC…

    • Patrick

      But 120 million people and an existing competitive infrastructure (the companies).

  • Patrick

    Bloody unbelievable, I was vaguely aware that dozens of ex-top players were there but that is really nuts.

  • Top League? How boring, I’d have called it Super Fun Good Time Happy League!!!

    Shows what could have been with the ARC, pity we never had the brains to run it.

  • Bobas

    According to the black rams website they call Larkham ‘RAKAMU’.

    Sounds Tougher.

    • Juan Cote

      Roughly translated, ‘Rakamu’ means held together by Elastoplast

      • Eddo

        Nice one JC..

  • Eddo

    Can we put together a list of links, websites to keep track on teams etc? The rugbyjapan website (while thankfully in english) is classicly confusing to get around.

    • Lance Free


      Just Google each club name and you’ll get them. They’re in Japanese on the Google list. Look at the web address on the bottom line of the entry to confirm. There’s a translate link on the right hand side as each comes up in the list.

      It doesn’t translate everything but you can generally find the team list and pictures on their site. I didn’t access every club site when researching this post. I’ve just done a couple now and found:

      Gene Fairbanks
      Henari Veratau
      Josh Blackie
      Bryce Robbins(called ‘Blythe’translated)

      Lock = Rock translated…just as they’d say it!

      • Lindommer

        Who’s Gene Fairbanks playing for? Can’t find him.

        • Lance Free


          See my comment on this page of 23 July @ 11.37pm. There’s the Fairbank’s link to Mitsubishi Dynaboars.

  • Cameron

    Lance — what about the Japanese College system? I have heard that university games get far bigger crowds than club matches.

    • Lance Free

      I read an article where it said that they sometimes get up to 60,000 fans attending their matches. The main rugby uni’s are:

      Waseda, Teikyo, Doshisha, Hosei, Meiji, Kanto Gakuin, Keio, Setsunan. Waseda 20 defeated Teikyo 10 in january this year to take out the 45th National University Championship (according to Wiki).

      They host them in the National Stadium and other large venues. Some of the Uni teams are pretty good, defeating Top League clubs in the All Japan Championships and producing plenty of internationals.

  • formeropenside

    I thought Veratau was a Racing 92 in France.

  • Cameron

    Jonathon Thurston being targeted by Japanese rugby, claims morning news.

  • Andrew

    Good to read this post. Went to a university game in Tokyo towards the end of last year. Decent-sized crowd, some good running rugby and a great day all-round. And better viewing than the professional game there, which is more about power and territory. A great experience that proved the strength of the rugby community there and underlined why RWC must go to Japan in ’19.

  • At Least I’m Honest

    Don’t underestimate what the Japanese can do when they decide to make changes and move forward.

    The whole of Asia used to laugh at Japanese football (soccer) and it’s league and then they started the J-League, now look at them, they are a world force.

    Give this cushy Japanese league 10-15 years and Japan will be a rugby force.

  • Roscoe Tims aka Lance Free

    This is good too


Roscoe Tims (aka @LanceFree): A nasty, opinionated little man whose views are indeed narrow with a capital 'N'. Favourite Sport: mungo bashing. Does he ever have anything positive to say?

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