When two times All Black Steven Bates took the decision to leave his home country and move to pastures new in Japan in 2008, he entered into a rugby environment that had some stark differences.
Having spent his entire career in Auckland and Waikato, winning 57 caps for the Chiefs in the process, Japan was something else in comparison.
“In New Zealand, everyone knows something about rugby. I’m not saying everyone is an expert, but literally everyone knows something about the sport. For many it’s a religion – if you see All Blacks walking down the street everyone knows who they are, they’re celebrities.
“Yet in Japan, when those same players go over no one knows or even cares who they are. If someone asks them why they have cauliflower ears, they might think they’re a wrestler or a K-1 fighter, they wouldn’t be expecting them to be a rugby player. Rugby’s very much a minority sport in Japan, but it is growing.”
The differences are clear at a structural level too, with rugby in New Zealand all stemming from one central source, the New Zealand Rugby Union.
“In New Zealand there is an overall governing body and everything comes from them, whereas in Japan there is a corporate structure, so the major teams are backed by large corporations such as Toshiba or Panasonic.
“In New Zealand all the players’ and coaches’ salaries come from the NZRU, whereas in Japan it is the major companies that provide the financial backing, so it’s a huge structural difference between the two countries.”
At the same time, however, there are some core values in the sport that just don’t change wherever you go, and Bates found that during his time abroad.
“It doesn’t matter what country you play or in or what language you speak, a rugby person is a rugby person. In both New Zealand and Japan there is a common interest in rugby, and as people they are both quite similar.”
Yet culturally, the two countries are worlds apart:
“Japan as a country is a different beast. In New Zealand the players used to love playing pranks on each other, and then afterwards it would go back to focusing on the hard work needing to be done. However, in Japan from the moment you step into the door it’s serious. In New Zealand you can switch it on or off, but in Japan it’s totally different.
“But there is so much respectfulness in Japan and for me and my family it meant we could spend a lot of time together. I played and worked for Toshiba and everyone there has a caring nature, they actually give two cents about who you are and what you’re about.”
Bates also eulogises about the potential of Japan’s first ever Super Rugby franchise.
“The introduction of the Sunwolves and Super Rugby to the country has been massive. The people that know their rugby in Japan know they’ve got a slice of the action in one of the world’s best tournaments.
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“Some of the games the Sunwolves have been involved in have been the most watched ever in the history of Super Rugby, not just in Japan but the whole tournament, so that shows you the kind of market there is in the country and the potential it has.
“It’s also made a huge difference in terms of the fanbase: usually most rugby fans in the country are quite old, but with the Sunwolves coming in suddenly young people are getting interested in the sport.
“In New Zealand 99% of people want to play for the All Blacks or the Black Ferns, it’s so important to them, but in Japan most young people are more interested in soccer or baseball, so the Sunwolves are starting to make an impact.”
Unfortunately, though, Bates feels despite the potential in Asia’s premier rugby nation, it is being held back by the state of things off the pitch.
“In professional rugby decisions need to be taken quickly, but because of the corporate structure important changes can take 4 to 5 months to come in and by that time half the season has passed. The corporations need to know that they can’t sit on their laurels – they have to take the opportunities that are being handed to them.
“The Sunwolves may have a four or five year franchise agreement in place, but they could be around for 20 or 30 years creating a huge shift in Japanese rugby. That won’t happen if these key decisions don’t move faster. The corporations bring in a lot of money to rugby in Japan, but at the same time there are people in corporate roles believing that 4 or 5 months isn’t a long time – in rugby it’s half a season. The wheels need to be put in motion.”
With rugby’s flagship tournament, the Rugby World Cup, arriving in Asia in 2019 for the first time, Japan has a brilliant chance to bring the sport to the fore like it never has done before. Bates believes the event could create a paradigm shift, but it depends on how the national side do.
“The Rugby World Cup could make an enormous difference to rugby in the country, but it does depend on how successful Japan is in the tournament. The recent win against Georgia and the narrow loss to Wales suggests things are improving for the Brave Blossoms.
“But there’s such a big population in the country that the games are always going to sell out, even if they’re featuring smaller nations. The Japanese are just generally interested in sport and they’re very passionate about it. I do think the World Cup would be a welcome shot in the arm for rugby in the country.”
With the right structures in place, the sky is the limit in the land of the rising sun.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena
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