General | SPORTS SCOPE

Samurais are in a league of their own

by Rich Freeman

With the launch of the Top League (the new professional league for rugby union in Japan) just three weeks away and the World Cup due to start on Oct. 10, it is easy to forget that there are in fact two codes of rugby.

News photoAlthough rugby league was only introduced to Japan 10 years ago, the national team
has already played in a number of high-profile tournaments, such at the World Sevens in
Sydney in 1995 where it took on one of the top nations in the world, Great Britain.

PHOTO COURTESY OF JAPAN RUGBY LEAGUE

While rugby union (the 15-man code) took off in Japan — to the extent that Japan, which until very recently remained a bastion of the old amateur ways, now ranks first in the world in terms of the number of clubs (4,050) and sixth in terms of the number of players (133,330) — the introduction of rugby league (the 13-man code) did not occur until over 100 years later when a former professional in the Australian National Rugby League (Mitsubishi Bulldog player Max Mannix) started the country’s first league team in 1993.

Within a year the national team, the Samurais, had been invited to play in the Coca Cola World Sevens in Sydney, but despite a number of union internationals crossing codes and playing for the Samurais the game has never really taken off in Japan — even though the game seems custom-made for the fleet footed, some would say vertically challenged, Japanese.

In 1995 Kenji Imanaga became the first Japanese player to be given a professional contract, signing a three-year deal with the Bulldogs and international games were soon being played against touring sides from New South Wales and the Lebanon national team, culminating in 1999 when Japan won its first international, beating Canada 14-0 in a World Cup qualifier.

But similar to events in Australia and Great Britain, a number of league players have been lost to the game having been “poached” by union clubs particularly as defensive coaches — ironic when one considers that the eventual professionalism of rugby union in 1995 came about partly due to the huge number of players crossing over to league, which had split from union 100 years before.

On Aug. 29 1895, 21 clubs met at the George Hotel in Huddersfield, England and formed the Northern Rugby Union — later to become known as the Rugby League.

The split from the Rugby Football Union, which had been formed 24 years earlier, was primarily about money and professionalism.

Clubs in the North wanted to pay their players, who were predominantly working class, while the “gentlemen” clubs of the South were determined not to follow the same path as soccer, which had prevented a Northern split in 1884 by allowing professionalism — with the result that the game and the clubs quickly became dominated by the working classes.

The RFU sides stood firm until there was no going back for the breakaway northern clubs and following the split of 1895 the rules of the game were changed — such as the abolition of line-outs, teams reduced to 13-a-side and the play-the-ball being introduced — in a bid to make the game more appealing and thereby increase attendance. Rugby League had begun.

The game soon spread, becoming particularly popular in the Oceania region and soon established itself as the No. 1 sport in Sydney and Brisbane, which along with the North of England, remain the hot spots of the game.

The Japan Rugby League has remained very faithful to the roots of the game, namely the community spirit that is prevalent at many rugby league clubs.

“There are very few, if any, community based sports in Japan and that is one of the aims of the Japan Rugby League,” said Mark Brady, director of the JRL.

“The Kagoshima Broncos, for example, have about 40 senior players and 160 kids, and the kids play a variety of sports. We want to give them a chance to experience all sports. The more sports you play the more skills you acquire, which makes you a better player in your chosen sport.

“The whole basis of sport is to have fun and that is what we try to impart to our players, particularly the young ones.”

Brady goes on to say that lack of size — a common excuse for the at-times woeful defense of the Japan rugby union team — shouldn’t be a factor if players have a background in other sports.

“Many of the modern tackling systems that are used in the NRL have their origins in judo and wrestling and use the principal of breaking the balance of an opponent — not power and strength. These principals were first introduced by the Brisbane Bronco and Australia captain Alan Langer who practiced judo throughout his childhood and is only about 165-cm tall.”

One Japanese player who did make a name for himself for his brutal defense is Broncos CEO Takafumi Imazono. A former rugby union player with Coca Cola West Japan with four rugby league caps and a student World Cup to his name, Iamazono is well aware that the only way to really teach a sport is to watch and play it in its true environment, and as such is organizing a tour to Australia for a group of promising high school players — the second such trip for the Kyushu based club.

There are, according to Brady, “a large number of former professional players in Japan for one reason or another, and the JRL has been in negotiations with the National Rugby League in Australia, the Super League in England and rugby league officials in New Zealand about importing a large number of players into Japan in order to showcase the sport.”

With the sport beginning to really take off in Russia and the States — “A number of the U.S. team that beat the Samurais recently had played Super League rugby in the U.K.,” said Brady — there are hopes that the game will start to expand in Japan.

“Fox Sports are planning on showing all of the American National Rugby League games in 2004 and there has been talk of a Tokyo team one day entering the competition,” Brady said.

However, the Queenslander is aware that the game needs to attract sponsors if it is to develop further.

“PCA Life Insurance have been very helpful and helped provide some equipment and jerseys but when the national team and the Broncos went over to America recently to play the U.S. Tomahawks and the New York Knights (2002 AMNRL winners) the players and officials had to pay their own way over.”

There is at present a squad of 20 Japanese players based overseas in Australia and New Zealand and with the Broncos beating the Knights 40-12 in the North Pacific Challenge there is obviously a sound base on which to build.

The problem facing Brady and the other hard working volunteers is how to nurture that talent so that Japan can climb up the international ladder and become truly competitive on the international stage. Something that their counterparts in the 15-man game have also had trouble with.