January 20, 2011
George Gregan signs autographs for Suntory fans © Getty Images
London Irish will bid farewell to a favourite son at the end of the season when Samoan international Seilala Mapusua packs his bags for Japan and a contract with Kubota Spears.
In recent seasons, a spell in the Top League has become an attractive proposition for a number of big names, who are drawn to the competition by the twin perks of an exotic locale and ample remuneration. While the foreign legion add a sprinkling of stardust to proceedings they have also played their part in raising the profile of Japanese rugby and to some extent the standard - as evidenced by the national team's recent strides under the guidance of former All Black John Kirwan.
In our latest Scrum Seven, we've selected a handful of Japan's best foreign imports.
George Gregan - Australia/Suntory Sungoliath
Gregan, the game's most-capped player, is currently seeing out the final season in a celebrated career with Suntory Sungoliath in Tokyo. The former Wallabies scrum-half was lured to Japan by ex-Brumbies and Australia boss Eddie Jones in 2008, following a spell with megabucks Top 14 side Toulon, for a postscript in a career that took in a Rugby World Cup win, two Tri-Nations titles and two Super Rugby crowns. Gregan announced in 2010 that he would be calling it a day after a final tilt at the Top League and All-Japan Championship and praised the improvement in quality that he had witnessed in his three-year stay. "I had been here a few times before and have always enjoyed coming here," he said. "I have learned a lot. You never stop learning. The game is always changing and it's been good to see the players grow. The Top League has developed and there are lot of promising players and there has been a lot more growth."
Toutai Kefu - Australia/Kubota Spears
After over 100 caps for Queensland and 60 Tests for the Wallabies, Kefu enjoyed a successful spell in Japan with Kubota Spears, playing over five seasons in the Top League. The Tongan-born No.8, brother of Wasps centre Steve, is currently the coach of Brisbane club Sunshine Coast Stingrays. A rugged defender and major force with ball in hand, Kefu was a high-profile coup for Japanese rugby and also proved to be an honest critic when questioned about the pros and cons of foreign players searching out their fortune there. In a 2009 interview with AAP he admitted that the likes of Gregan and Stephen Larkham could earn a "shitload" of cash there, but also sounded a note of caution about rugby's future in the country. "Some clubs have actually turned amateur, have forfeited all their professional players and turned amateur," Kefu said. "There's other teams that have spent a fortune on more players. Japan at the moment's going through a huge recession but, depending on the club, they're still willing to spend a lot of money on their rugby program. The main reason they [foreign players] do it is, obviously, the money and after a year it's really hit and miss, you either love the place or you don't. If you don't like it and you're in a bad area you really want to get out of it."
James Arlidge - Japan/NTT DoCoMo Kansai
Born in Hamilton, Arlidge progressed quickly to Super Rugby with the Blues in 2000 as cover for the injured Carlos Spencer. During his time in New Zealand he went on to represent Auckland, Northland and Otago at provincial level as well as turning out for the Highlanders in the 2003 Super 12. In 2004 he opted for a switch to Japan with NTT DoCoMo Kansai, playing four seasons with the Osaka club and winning eligibility for the Cherry Blossoms. Arlidge's model will become increasingly important in the coming seasons, with Top League sides permitted to field three foreign players at a time, with one having to be eligible for international action with Japan. Arlidge has subsequently spent time with Newport Gwent Dragons and Nottingham in the UK, while winning 22 Test caps and scoring 188 points.
Tony Brown - New Zealand/Sanyo Wild Knights
Brown enjoyed huge success during his time in Japan with Sanyo Wild Knights, based north of Tokyo in Ōta. A former All Black fly-half, Brown won 18 Test caps and scored 817 points in Super Rugby for the Highlanders. In 2005 he made the switch to Japan, interspersing his time there with stints in Super Rugby for South African franchises, the Stormers and Sharks. In 2007-08, Brown inspired the Wild Knights to 13 victories and the Top League's first unbeaten season, winning a place in the Team of the Year and also MVP in a fans' poll. In 2008 Brown was forced to put his career on hold after he suffered a life-threatening injury in a match against Kintetsu Liners, when a blindside tackle resulted in a ruptured pancreas and acute pancreatitis.
Rico Gear - New Zealand/Kintetsu Liners
Gear won 19 caps for the All Blacks between 2004 and 2007, as well as a Commonwealth Games gold in Sevens and back-to-back Super Rugby titles with the Crusaders, before his omission from the 2007 Rugby World Cup squad caused him to look for pastures new. He took up a contract with Premiership side Worcester later that year but left in 2010 following a mixed time, often blighted by injury. His release by the Warriors paved the way for a move to the Osaka-based Liners, coached by former All Black Peter Sloane.
Leon MacDonald - New Zealand/Yamaha Jubilo/Kintetsu Liners
MacDonald found great success in New Zealand either side of his first stint in Japanese rugby with the Iwata, Shizuoka-based Yamaha Jubilo in 2004. The fullback had made his Test debut for the All Blacks in 2000 and went on to win 56 caps, scoring 141 points and playing in the 2003 and 2007 Rugby World Cups. In Super Rugby he played the majority of his career for Robbie Deans' highly successful Crusaders teams, whom he left in 2009 to return to Japan with Kintetsu Liners. While there, he suffered a career-ending head injury in a pre-season game and subsequently made the move into coaching with ITM Cup province Tasman.
Fourie du Preez - South Africa
In arguably the biggest coup yet for the game in Japan, Springbok scrum-half Fourie du Preez will take up a contract in the Top League following the conclusion of the 2011 Rugby World Cup. While the Bulls No.9 is yet to announce his destination, the tournament will have a legitimate claim to being the home of one of the world's finest players who, aside from an injury-disrupted 2010, remains at the top of his powers. "I am affording myself the opportunity to change the scenery and to expose myself to a different culture. This contract will allow me that," he said. "I think I can learn a lot and broaden my horizons in the game at the same time, which will help should I opt for a career in coaching later on in my life."
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