On a Wing and a Prayer

Welcome to Japan, Club Rugby's Most Intriguing Outpost

Japan's club rugby scene is a world away from what you'll find in Europe or Oceania, both in terms of culture and structure. We spoke to Craig Wing and Uche Oduoza about their experiences playing in the country.
18 May 2017, 10:58am

Back home, Craig Wing was a big noise. Capped 17 times by Australia, he was a veteran of four NRL Grand finals, a State of Origin staple and a cheekbones-and-charm face on Sydney's social scene.

Now he found himself cycling through Tokyo, umbrella in one hand, kit bag in the other, heading to train with a team that he hadn't known existed a few months before.

This is rugby union's answer to Lost in Translation, where big reputations disappear into a very different cultural milieu to earn big money.

In the wake of the 2015 World Cup, David Pocock, Bernard Foley and Israel Folau – Australia's captain, control-centre and carver-in-chief respectively – all signed deals to play club rugby in Japan. New Zealand's pile-driving polymath Sonny Bill Williams and England's banter-flanker James Haskell have been out there in the past, as have now-retired global stars like George Gregan, Ma'a Nonu, Fourie de Preez and Shane Williams. Australian cap centurion Matt Giteau and Geoff Parling – who played in all three of the Lions tests Down Under four years ago – will be heading over next season.

For all the talk of new lifestyles and mindsets, yen rather than zen is the initial lure.

When Springbok centre Jaque Fourie signed with Kobelco Steelers in 2012, his pay cheque – reputedly £700,000 a year – was reckoned to be the biggest in the sport.

Wing switched codes and countries to NTT Shining Arcs in 2010 and, at the age of 30, negotiated a reported rise of £110,000 from his Rabbitohs deal, to £400,000 a year.

"The money was very good," he told VICE Sports. "It was on par with what I was getting paid at the peak of my career, probably a little bit more. It was very, very attractive."

Wing strikes a pose in Japan // Photo used with permission

The riches don't come via television rights, gate receipts or shady overseas sugar daddies. The clubs are essentially works teams, funded as prestige projects by the superpowers of the Japanese economy. The current champions are a branch of Suntory, the real-life brewing company Bill Murray plugged between meaningful looks at Scarlett Johansson back in 2003. Panasonic have a team. So do Honda, Mitsubishi, Yamaha, Ricoh and Toshiba. When foreign players sign up, they are joining a corporation as much as a club.

"When I was negotiating my contract, I tried to get a car as part of it but they said they wouldn't supply one," explains Wing. "I thought, 'No problem, cars are easy. I'll just get one when I'm out there'.

"It was only when I arrived that I found out NTT had a company policy of not driving to work. So I would have to ride a bike to the station, catch a train, and then walk to training, all while lugging my kit. And then do the whole thing in reverse at the end.

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"The thing that got me was there was a car park outside the clubhouse. I could have parked right there. But those were the company rules. They applied to us as much as the office guys. You just had to do it."

In Japan, players are treated like regular company employees. For the most part, that's just what they are.

There is a quota of three foreign players on each team. The rest start their day as office workers, clocking on at their desk job before breaking early to train with the imported pros. With a sky-scraping language barrier, different cultural backgrounds and a horribly lop-sided wage structure, it shouldn't work as a dressing room. But it does.

Uche Oduoza joined Suntory Supergoliath in 2008 at the age of 21. A runaway boulder of a wing, he spent just a season in Japan before a knee injury brought him back to England. He has only happy memories of Tokyo though.

Uche with a Japanese teammate // Photo courtesy of Uche Oduoza

"There was a real family culture at the club. We would spend a lot of time together as a team, having group meals, meeting each other's partners and children, staying behind to drink together after training," he said.

"I had a Japanese tutor and there were some players, mostly of Polynesian heritage, who spoke English and helped me fit in. Teammates are very respectful in Japan. There wasn't the swearing, coarse atmosphere you get in an English dressing room. That not is to say one is better than another, but we built a really strong bond. Even now, nearly 10 years on, I keep in touch with some of the Japanese guys I played with there."

Wing also noticed the difference from back home.

"It is a lot different to how it is in Australia or England, where you might hang at the bar and have people all over you and guys chasing girls and all that carry-on," he said. "In Japan it is more about being in each other's company and hanging out together as a team.

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"On a typical night out you would go for dinner at one of these timed all-you-can-eat, all-you-can-drink buffets – they call it the hour of power. Then you could kick on and go to a karaoke. It is less about the singing and more about drinking games that I couldn't understand!"

And in those drunken moments of honesty, the pay gap was never a problem.

"I would ask the Japanese guys if they felt bad about how much the imported guys are getting paid," continued Wing. "Surely they would prefer to be a full-time rugby player? Nine out of 10 of them said, 'No way in the world'. They had their regular, well-paid job with a big company for the rest of their lives. They only had to do four hours of work a day then got to go training and have this lifestyle as a rugby player, travelling around the country to play in big games.

"It is the saddest day in their lives when the company retires them from the team. They go back to having a full-time job, working at a desk from eight in the morning to eight at night. They are absolutely devastated."

Wing with teammates in Japan // Photo used with permission

The camaraderie is heart-warming, but the Top League's pro-am mix means the on-pitch action is less than white hot. Fiji winger Nemani Nadolo said of his two years in Japan with the NEC Green Rockets: "Without being disrespectful, anybody with two legs could play there."

It's a wild overstatement, of course, but there is a grain of truth in Nadolo's words. Oduoza says the standard at Suntory during his spell there was better than England's second-tier Championship, but short of the Premiership. Wing admits that his first season was "a significant step down" from the Rabbitohs. It is inferior, but also a substantively different sort of rugby.

"They didn't have the big archetypal forwards that you might see in Wales or South Africa," explains Oduoza. "Instead they were faster, smaller, with a very high work rate. That played into the hands of the backs who got a lot more ball."

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That rapid-fire recycling and all-court game was what shocked South Africa in Japan's famous 2015 World Cup heist. It might have helped sharpen their sevens game before beating New Zealand at Rio 2016, too.

The Springboks and All Blacks could be forgiven for being caught out. For the most part, what goes on in Japan stays in Japan. Matches are rarely shown abroad and most of the online coverage is indecipherable to English speakers.

They may be under the radar, but foreign players – flush with cash, free of celebrity-grade media scrutiny, and not stretched by the sport – still can't stray too far from the straight and narrow. They carry their corporation's reputations – and in Japan that is a hefty burden.

After one player was caught drink-driving, the car manufacturer that paid his bills did not just fire him – they liquidated their whole rugby programme, winding up the team.

Wing as a Japanese international with his former coach Eddie Jones // Photo used with permission

Wing stretched the limits of NTT's car ban by parking at a nearby supermarket and hopping over the training ground fence, but generally kept his nose clean in Japan.

"There is no 'larrikin' culture. No 'boys will be boys' leeway," he explains. "Each company will have shareholders and investors to answer to. Each will probably have influential people who think rugby is a big waste of money. They treat you like an adult and in return expect you to behave with some dignity and pride, to uphold the reputation of the company. There is no silly stuff about curfew and nightclub bans. Instead you are told, 'Don't fuck up.' If you do fuck up you get dealt with.

"There are no second or third chances, like in Australia or other rugby cultures. If you do something wrong, if the cops are called or it gets in the paper, you are gone."

Keep on the right side of the law, however, and your stay in the most intriguing outpost in rugby is likely to be longer than planned.

"It is completely different to anything you experience playing footy anywhere else," concludes Wing. "It is a really lucky ticket. You get paid really well, you get a tremendous amount of free time with your family and it is refreshing, both mentally and physically. Your body can regenerate and you can experiment with your rugby without the scrutiny and pressure.

"I went over for two years and stayed for six. That is what happens to everyone who goes to Japan."

@MikeHensonBBC