Japan’s new professional rugby league, the Top League, may not kick off until Sept. 13 but the 12 clubs involved are all in the process of finalizing their squads and coaching staffs for the inaugural season.
Following hard on the heels the news that Wallaby vice-captain Toutai Kefu would join the Kanto-based Kubota club following the Rugby World Cup in October and November, Sanix, the West Japan champion of 2002-2003, held a press conference in Tokyo on Monday to announce two big-name signings of its own.
Arran Pene, who played 15 times in the backrow for the All Blacks, was named head coach, while the club also welcomed on board former Waikato captain Dion Muir.
“Sanix has done very well in recruiting a number of good players and strengthening its coaching staff,” said Pene. “Next year’s competition will be an exciting one and we look forward to taking the challenge on.”
The club, which was at the forefront of importing foreign talent when it acquired the services of New Zealanders Graeme Bachop and Jamie Joseph after the 1995 RWC, has also announced a link with the Saracens club in London, following on from the latter’s tour of Japan in August 2002.
One benefit of this link will be that former Wallaby center Tim Horan will be one of the club’s new technical advisers along with Joseph.
“Graeme and Jamie have set up a great environment, which has made it much easier to fit in,” said Muir.
The former Waikato favorite went on to say that the appointment of Pene and his family’s desire to come to Japan had helped him choose the Fukuoka-based club ahead of teams in Italy and France.
“I have been here a few times with Waikato and like the culture, the style of rugby they play and the food,” added the No. 8, before admitting that his failure to make the All Blacks squad after playing the best rugby of his career in the recent NPC Championship was the final reason for leaving New Zealand.
Pene arrives in Fukuoka having spent seven years at the Kaneka club in Hyogo. However, the chemical company was forced to pull the plug on its rugby team when it failed to make the new league.
“I am very grateful for the opportunity Kaneka gave me first as a player and then in the last year as head coach,” said the 35-year-old Pene.
“I wanted to stay in Japan when Kaneka shut down and fortunately Sanix came in with a great offer. It’s a great environment here but we have to be realistic. The new competition will be tough for everyone but if we can consolidate our position and then look at a top eight or top four finish in the future then we will have done well.”
With Pene’s knowledge of Japanese rugby and his ability to communicate with his players and Muir leading from the front, Sanix hopes to build on its traditional forward game and allow its exciting backs — which include Reuben Parkinson, a member of Japan’s provisional World Cup squad — to show their ability.
“Successful teams cannot be one-dimensional,” said the new head coach. “But in order to achiever your goals you need a solid base up front.”
With the likes of Horan and Joseph helping out the Kyushu champion — the only team in the Top League west of Kansai — now has a base and coaching staff that many foreign clubs would be envious of.
The first taste of real competition for Pene and Muir will be at the Yokohama Country and Athletic Club’s invitational sevens tournament on April 6, with the company seven’s tournament the following week, before the “spring season” gets under way with a game against Toyota on May 11.
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