The university final earlier this month between Waseda and Kanto Gakuin highlighted all that is good and bad about college rugby in Japan.
On the one hand, there was a good-size crowd (close on 40,000) that would have been the envy of any club or provincial team playing at the highest level anywhere in the world.
And the game itself was typical of how the game is generally played in Japan — players looking to run the ball at every opportunity with the emphasis very much on scoring tries as opposed to waiting for an opportunity to take a shot at goal.
So what, therefore, was wrong?
Well, the problem is that there were certain players who were quite frankly too good for that particular game, and the fact that they are “forced” to play university rugby for four years is having a harmful effect on the development of the game in Japan.
By their late teens, the likes of Jonny Wilkinson, Jonah Lomu, Matt Giteau and Joe Roff were already playing provincial rugby and making their first tentative steps into international rugby.
And in years gone by Rob Andrew, Anton Oliver, Terry Wright and Gavin Hastings, to name but four, were combining their studies at university with international rugby.
Now that’s not to say that Japan has not had its share of international students. Terunori Masuho, Yukio Motoki and Ryo Yamamura all made their debuts while still at Waseda, Meiji and Kanto Gakuin, respectively.
However, the big difference is that while at university the Japanese players only play against other student teams. They may play the odd friendly against a company team but by and by their rugby experience is limited to student rugby.
“The Auckland University team contains past and present students and even a few who weren’t at the university and they play against normal club sides,” said Wright on Wednesday.
“University rugby in Japan is good to watch but the better players would benefit playing against senior players,” added Wright, who made his debut as an All Black while still studying part-time for his accountancy degree at Auckland University, and who has spent the last 18 months in Tokyo.
The fact that Hosei University’s Kyohei Morita had such a storming debut for Japan in the Super Powers Cup in his first real game against “men” just showed the potential he has.
And therein lies the problem.
Both Waseda and Kanto had a number of players of potential such as Yuta Imamura, Ayumu Gorumaru, Shota Goto and Go Aruga.
All these players have both the skills and physical attributes to play at the highest level — and bearing in mind the lack of depth at the highest level, as so obviously exposed during Japan’s November tour of Europe — would be welcome additions to the national squad.
Yet for four years their rugby education is being “held back,” — a view shared by Mark Robinson, who won nine caps for the All Blacks from 2000-2002, played for Cambridge University in 1997 and 1998 and is presently plying his trade with the Kobe Kobelco Steelers.
“Players need to be challenged on the field. They need to experience different styles of rugby, different physiques and different game plans,” said the political studies and philosophy graduate on Thursday.
“At Cambridge we played the likes of Saracens and Leicester and it benefited us hugely. Players aged between 20 and 23 need to be tested more regularly and that doesn’t seem to happen here.”
Now I am not for one moment going to suggest that they should give up on their “proper” education. But surely there is a way whereby the top student players can get experience of rugby at the highest level.
Last weekend’s Microsoft Cup quarterfinals showed just how intense things can be at the highest level.
Japan needs to adopt the system that many other countries now have in place whereby young players of potential are fast-tracked into top-flight rugby.
In England, many of the top clubs have set up academies so that high school players can train with the likes of Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio, etc.
This season, for example, a 17-year-old flyhalf from Whitgift School, Daniel Cipriani, made his debut for London Wasps in the Powergen Cup — the Wasps coaches being of the firm mind that if you are good enough, you are old enough.
Other clubs have set up schemes with local universities to ensure that players can pursue a degree while remaining a professional rugby player.
The conservatives within Japanese rugby will probably argue that student rugby is the life blood of the game, but in the modern professional era it is time such old-fashioned views were put to bed.
Taking three or four players from each of the top universities and allowing them to play for the top sides in Japan is hardly going to devalue the competition, given the huge squads each team has.
Besides which, the annual varsity match between Oxford and Cambridge still attracts 40,000, even though the players on show are generally those that have put their education ahead of a career as a professional rugby player.
Wright and Robinson actually believe the Japan Rugby Football Union should go a step further and allow the top university teams to play either with the corporate teams in the regional leagues in a competition below the Top League, or for a new competition to be set up featuring the 2nd XV’s of the top company teams.
“There are too many players here who only train and never play,” said Robinson. “You need to play and not train to develop as a player. There really needs to be a forum set up to consider all the issues.”
The game has come a long way since it turned professional in 1995, and as the autumn test match results showed there is an ever-increasing gap between the top tier and the rest.
“I can understand if a player cannot tour with the national team if it clashed with exams but it doesn’t make sense if it is for rugby reasons,” said Wright, referring to the fact that university players have often been told that they cannot play for their country as their school comes first.
“They need to get away from the hierarchy. The national team must come first.”
If the JRFU is serious about hosting the Rugby World Cup in 2011 it needs to show that it is serious about developing the game in Japan.
Allowing the top university players to combine an education with the experience of training and playing with the world-class players that the Top League and the regional leagues are attracting would go some way to showing people that it is serious.
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