The All Blacks are playing their first-ever away test against Japan in Tokyo on Saturday, but at club level the journey north is becoming familiar for more and more New Zealanders.
The big-money lure of Japanese rugby’s Top League has persuaded an increasing number of All Blacks to leave their country in recent years, with 2011 World Cup winners Sonny Bill Williams, Jerome Kaino and Ma’a Nonu all among those making the switch for varying lengths of time.
The New Zealand Rugby Union’s central contracts dictate that moving abroad means forfeiting the right to wear the famous black shirt while overseas, but a growing number of players are making the sacrifice as Japan becomes an ever-more attractive destination in the modern professional game.
“I just wanted a change of environment,” Kaino, a nominee for the International Rugby Board’s 2011 world player of the year award who joined the Top League’s Toyota Verblitz on a two-year deal in March 2012, told The Japan Times. “Of course the financial side of it was attractive, but the World Cup was quite demanding of me both mentally and physically. I needed a change of environment and I wanted some time with my family.
“I knew that the rugby would be different from New Zealand. The main reason was that I needed a break, and I knew that in Japan there aren’t as many games as there are in New Zealand. I have played internationally since I was 16, and part of it was to freshen up.”
Financial muscle has helped the Top League attract star players, but a less-intense match environment has played its part too. World Cup-winning All Black Anthony Boric suffered a serious neck injury while playing for Super Rugby’s Blues last year, and the 29-year-old lock admits it was a factor in accepting an offer to join second-tier Mitsubishi Dynaboars in July.
“I got an offer and thought about it for a long time,” said Boric, who has 24 test caps for the All Blacks. “I had always planned to hang around in New Zealand for longer, but I had a bad neck injury and I realized that I didn’t know how long my career would last. So why not take the opportunity while I can?
“The neck was a factor, but in saying that, there is still a lot of intensity during training and in the games. They don’t take rugby lightly here. But my neck is feeling much better and every week it doesn’t have to take the hits it would back home.”
But if commentators in New Zealand assume that Japanese rugby offers big money for a minimum of effort, Kaino is keen to set the record straight.
“It’s a lot harder than what people perceive it as in New Zealand,” said the 30 year old, who will return to Super Rugby with the Blues once Toyota’s season has ended. “I personally thought it was going to be a lot easier coming here, but that’s not the case. It’s not the walk in the park that people think it is. You get a lot of physical contact from every team, and they have a lot of skill and play at a fast pace.”
Boric has also been surprised by the intensity.
“When I first came here, I was only here for a few days before we went to Hokkaido for a training camp, and that was full-on,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘what have I got myself into here?’
“It has been quite a shock, the pounding that the lungs have taken. I’m trying to change the way I play a bit, not chasing every ruck. It’s quite hard to keep up with a lot of the guys.”
The growing exodus to Japan has, however, caused concern in New Zealand that the domestic game is suffering as a result. Kaino admits that the talent drain has affected his home country, but the loose forward is confident there is enough strength in depth to cope.
“With the coaching and the level that they have in New Zealand, I think the factory will just keep pumping out these young players who can perform at a high level,” he said. “It might hurt New Zealand rugby with some players leaving, but they will replace them with more good players.
“I think Japan is becoming a very lucrative market for young players, and you are seeing a lot of foreigners becoming players for the Japan national team. I think it’s a great place to learn, because the coaches are starting to skill themselves.”
But Boric admits there are limits to the satisfaction Japanese rugby can provide.
“You always have that fire burning in you, and you always want to play at the highest level,” he said. “I still miss pulling on the All Blacks jersey and running out with the team.”
For Kaino, who was named as one of the top five players of the last World Cup and has 48 test caps to his name, the prospect of giving up his All Blacks place was almost enough to sink the deal.
“It was really hard to give up the All Blacks spot,” he said. “I knew coming over here would leave the door open for someone to take my position, but it was a risk I was willing to take.
“I have really enjoyed my time here, and I hope it’s not the end of my experience in Japan. I would love to come back after I have achieved what I want to achieve in New Zealand.”
For the time being, Kaino and Boric will have to watch from the stands as the All Blacks visit Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground on Saturday. A cerebral infarction suffered by Japan coach Eddie Jones has cast a pall over the buildup to the game, but Kaino believes the home side is capable of giving a good account of itself.
“I’m hoping that Japan put up a good effort,” he said. “I know some of the players, and I know that they have been preparing very hard for the test. I’m sure the players will regroup and put on a good performance for Eddie.
“But there are some good young players selected for the All Blacks squad and I know they will perform. I’m hoping for an All Blacks win.”