If Stephen Ferris makes the rumoured switch to the Top League, he won’t be the first Irish backrower to play in Japan’s top flight rugby competition.
Mark Egan, former Terenure College No8 and current Head of Development and Performance in the IRB spent four years in Japan playing for Kobe Steel in the mid 1990s, having captained Oxford University to success in the 1990 Varsity Match at Twickenham.
Egan’s tenure in Japan owed much to the influence of the remarkable Dr Sokichi Kametaka, then president of Kobe Steel, a passionate supporter of the game in Japan and a man with a deep and abiding connection to Oxford University rugby.
The comparison between Ferris and Egan is fascinating; in many ways, it shows just how much the game has changed socially and commercially in the last twenty-odd years.These days, the Varsity Match is just a glorified sideshow with little meaning for rugby fans outside the dreaming spires, while for the best part of a century it was one of the highest profile games in the rugby calendar. Ferris’ proposed move has been characterised as a lucrative short-term money-spinner, a means of ekeing out the last yen of his pro career. In contrast, Egan’s was seen as the first step on the corporate ladder of a long career outside the game … a career of business administration in a blue-chip industry in perhaps the most vital economy in the world at the time.
Times have changed; professionalism has changed the game in many ways, not just with regards to players becoming bigger and stronger. However, some things in Japanese rugby haven’t changed too much. Franchises are still owned by corporations – Kobe Steel have become Kobelco Steelers – and gaijin still have an important part to play on the pitch.
The Japanese Top League
The Japanese Top League is composed of fourteen [brilliantly named] teams, many of them instantly recognisable from their parent companies: for example, the Panasonic Wild Knights, Toyota Verblitz, Toshiba Brave Lupus and current champions Suntory Sungoliath.
Each team is allowed three non-Japanese qualified players on the pitch at any one time, with the proviso that one of these is [or will be] eligible to play for Japan under the IRB’s residency rules. In addition, one player from another Asian union can also be on the pitch at the same time as the three ‘foreigners’ [for example, Kobelco Steelers have Wang Sibo of China and Hrishikech Pendse of India under contract]. In practice, each team has between four and nine non-Japanese players on their books.
While a number of super-duper stars have played in the league in recent years – Brad Thorn, Fourie du Preez, Sonny-Bill Williams, Jaque Fourie, Jerry Collins and George Smith amongst them – the regulation that one of the foreign players could possibly play for Japan in the future [which is akin to the IRFU’s ‘project player’ designation] means that there’s room for less well-known or accomplished players too. Leinster’s Andrew Goodman played a season for the Honda Heat, for example, and there’s a decent former Kiwi Super Rugby player in pretty much every squad.
This Stop, Auckland; Next Stop, Tokyo
New Zealand isn’t that close to anywhere, bar Australia. While a flight from Wellington to Tokyo will take in approximately 9825km and cost just about 12 hours of your life, it’s a damn sight closer than flying to Paris or London from the Shaky Isles; that’ll take you a full 24 hours and about 18800 kms away from home.
While those distances might be anathema to Europeans who’ve grown up in an era of low-cost, point-to-point airlines, Kiwis have always hankered after their OE – overseas experience – so much so that it has become an ingrained part of their culture. Getting away from home is now a ritual of young adulthood, and while typically it takes place at a post-third level stage of their lives, that’s the prime of a professional rugby player’s career. While your mates might be doing heading off at 23 or 24 years old, a fledgling representative player would be cutting himself off at the knees by taking a year out at that stage. So, for a lot of Kiwi players, a stint abroad towards the end of their rugby career doubles as an opportunity to get a bit of delayed OE and to earn better money that they would at home.
Cash Money Homie
And the money can be very good. Superstar Sonny-Bill Williams is reputed to have signed the “largest one-season contract in rugby union history” with the Panasonic Wild Knights for the 2012-13 Top League season [although no figures have been published], and the league has become a popular watering hole for top-end southern hemisphere players of all nationalities, not just New Zealanders.
Wallaby centurion George Smith was rumoured to be on €800k p.a. at Suntory Sungoliath, and Springbok centre Jaque Fourie’s two year deal with Kobelco Steelers is reputed to be in the region of R20-22m [between €845k-€930k p.a].
Of course, just like any aspect of life, you get out what you put into it. While a season in the Top League may be seen by some as an opportunity to featherbed their retirement and nothing else, others find it a profound experience. All Black legend Brad Thorn, who spent the last two Top League seasons with the Fukuoka Sanix Blues, was [to borrow from Munster coach Rob Penney’s vocabulary] rapt with his time in Japan:
“Japan has been awesome. Japan has been a privilege … A guy could be holding a street sign, I see it all the time, and he might have been doing that for 20 or 30 years, but he does that to the best of his ability. He’s proud of what he does.”
Similarly, while one might expect Jaque Fourie to be enthusiastic given the salary he’s on, something about how he describes his time in Japan and his dealings with his club makes The Mole feel like he’s not faking it:
“Everyone goes to Europe. I wanted to do something different… something that didn’t revolve around rugby alone … I haven’t made myself available for the Boks during the two seasons I’ll spend at the Steelers because I want to give my full commitment to the club.”
“The Japanese people have been so welcoming and we love everything about the country, including the rugby. Kobe have been incredibly professional, patient and understanding in all of their dealings with me … so I thank them for that and look forward to enjoying success with the Steelers.”
Big In Italy
Harking back to the Mark Egan era, this reminds The Mole of the attitude of various southern hemisphere stars like David Campese, John Kirwan, Michael Lynagh and Zinzan Brooke in the twilight days of amateurism. Back then, Italy was the favoured landing spot of Anzac internationals looking to experience a new culture and earn a few bucks [on the side, naturally].
At the time, the Italian Lira was a relatively strong currency: anecdotally, that explains why Serie A was the best football league in the world at the time, with the best Dutch [Gullit, van Basten, Rijkaard], German [Mattheus, Klinsmann, Bremer], Argentine [Maradona] and Brazilian [Careca] players togging out for Italian clubs. More prosaically, in 1990, 1NZ$ bought roughly 725 Lira.
At the time, house prices in Auckland averaged about NZ$160k, which translated to roughly 116m Lira. It’s informative in trying to establish the relative purchasing power available for a Kiwi plying his trade in Italy: if he could come up to the Northern Hemisphere, earn himself a fair wedge of Lira and get given free accommodation, he would likely look at knocking off as much from a mortgage as possible during his playing career.
Because no figures regarding payments to Southern Hemisphere players in Italy in the late 1980s and early 1990s have ever really been discussed publicly – rugby was still supposedly amateur at the time – probably the most valuable exercise to determine what they might have earned is to examine the situation in comparison with the money available from Rugby League at the time.
People of a certain vintage might remember what a huge threat the Northern Code was to Union in the late 1980s, with top class internationals like John Devereux [a strapping Welsh centre in the Danie Gerber/Jaque Fourie mould who represented the British and Irish Lions in 1989] and Jonathan ‘Jiffy’ Davies signing professional forms for Widnes at the peak of their union careers.
Zinzan Brooke might talk about the love of the game, but it was the cash from Italy as well as the opportunity to play for the All Blacks likely kept him in Union. Negotiating with League sides [and he was very close to signing with the Manly Sea Eagles at one stage] probably let him know what figures were available to a professional rugby player, and gave him a starting point in his negotiations with his Italian employers.
In 1988-89 Davies was signed by Widnes for £150k: he wasn’t under contract to anyone at the time so while it was described by many in League circles as a transfer, it wasn’t like they gave the WRU the money – it went to Davies himself. The next year, current Wasps coach Dai Young’s ‘transfer fee’ from Cardiff RFC to Leeds was €165k – the ante had been considerably upped. That would still be decent money today, and a quarter of a century ago it was Premiership stuff.
In light of those figures from Rugby League, it doesn’t seem unrealistic to think that the likes of Campese and Brooke were earning £25-30k in Italy per season. With exchange rates the way they were, that meant that you could likely pay off the majority of the mortgage on a decent house in Auckland in two or three years.
Outside of the realities of pay-to-play, reading Brooke’s autobiography gives a real feeling of just what an eye-opener the experience was in terms of the lifestyle and habits of another culture. In those days, the expense of travel was restrictive to guys who had to hold down regular jobs as well as play international rugby; these days, it’s the professional life of a rugby player that can prove restrictive. Alan Quinlan wrote recently in the Irish Times that “as a professional rugby player, you come to rely on structure a lot, being told where to go and what to do, when to train and even what to eat.”
While there’s little doubt that the training, nutrition and sponsorship duties in Japan are recognisably similar to their home life to southern hemisphere players, literally every other experience are new to them.
It’s one of the reasons why The Mole isn’t that down on the gallivanting of James ‘Brand’ Haskell or Superstar Sunny-Bull Wull’yums: these lads are cramming all the experiences they can have into their athletic careers, playing all over the world with different types of people, and experiencing foreign cultures in a different way than they could do post-career as a tourist. There’s a lot to be said for an adventurous spirit.
Tipping The Scales
However, adventurous spirit or no, it’d be beyond naive not to recognise that a huge part of the attraction to Japan is the money. The cultural aspect might be very rewarding – if the player in question is receptive – but the rugby is of a far lower standard than these players are used to playing, so it’s difficult to see them getting any professional satisfaction out of it. Outside certain French multi-millionaire-backed powerhouses, with their laissez faire approach to the supposed salary cap, the amount of money available in the Far East is having a discernible knock-on effect when it comes to European teams recruiting Southern Hemisphere talent.
There are a number of factors involved: again, one of them is the currency market. In July 2008 [shortly before Rocky Elsom arrived in Dublin to play for Leinster], the Euro was strong against the Yen, trading at roughly €1 = ¥170; at the moment it’s trading at roughly €1 = ¥120 … that’s just about a 30% drop in value.
As we’ve outlined above, the Japanese teams are owned – not just sponsored – by enormous multinationals headquartered in the country, with cash resources that are quite mind-bending; for example, Toyota is the eleventh largest corporation in the world by revenue. In terms of supporting their clubs, and without being in any way fiscally irresponsible, they can afford to pay their foreign players a huge whack because they don’t have to pay the rest of their squad that much: there’s absolutely no market for Japanese players in any other league.
A chap like Jaque Fourie can come in and ask for a fortune, and the best Japanese player on the team isn’t going to say “pay me the same as Fourie or I’ll go to France” … he probably wouldn’t even get a spot in a pro team in any club in the Pro D2. He’s got no leverage. That’s just not the case in Ireland – there’s an international market for our test players, as Jonny Sexton’s move to Racing Metro has proven.
A South African Centre Flaps His Wings in Japan, And An Irish Province Gets Knocked Out Of The Heineken Cup In France
So even if Munster or Leinster did have enough money to pay somebody like Conrad Smith the €700k p.a. that he could probably earn in Japan [and he was out of contract with the New Zealand union, and he wanted to give up his All Black jersey, and he decided he wanted to play for an Irish province rather than live in Biarritz or Paris], what happens when Conor Murray or Sean O’Brien come up for contract negotiations and say “I’m as important to Munster/Leinster as Conrad Smith is, I want €700k p.a. too”?
The player might have a very solid case that he is as important to Munster/Leinster as Conrad Smith, in that he’s a vitally important player and that there’s a huge step down from him to the next man in his position. On the other hand, once you set €700k p.a. as the benchmark for your best NIQ player, all the “he’s available to play 30+ matches per season” arguments don’t really cut it with the Irish player or his agent. Even if they accept that they’re not going to get €700k, they’re not going to be happy with an offer of €250-300k, because that’s less than 50% of what the top earner at the club makes.
You can see how that opens a can of worms: it’s a big difference being valued as worth 85-90% of the best player/highest earner at the club rather than 35-45%. It’s a slap in the face frankly, and while some will maintain that negotiations are all about cold hard cash at the end of the day’s negotiations, there’s more to it than that. Players want to feel appreciated, valued and secure, just like anybody else in a job. Saying that you’re worth less than half what another player earns doesn’t really help in that regard. If you’re a bit part player, and you don’t have that many other options, you just have to bite your tongue and sign on the line that is dotted. If you’re a regular test starter, not only do you have other options, you now have a bit of a grudge.
The Vichy League
The problem for the Irish provinces isn’t just Japanese wages though: as we’ve said before, the standard of rugby in the Top League is a long way off the pace, and that doesn’t really suit players who are looking for a genuine professional challenge rather than just a payday. You don’t become a world class player without having a competitive streak as wide as your back, and the Japanese league isn’t necessarily a great fit for those players who’ve still got fire in their bellies.
On the other hand, the French league is, to quote Joe Schmidt’s memorable phrase, “a man-up-athon”. A season in the Top14 and the Heineken Cup will give you all the competition you need, and the money’s there too: Fleshlumpeater Bakkies Botha – a competitive animal if ever there was one – is on a three year deal in Toulon that’s estimated to be worth €700k p.a.
The television rights for the Top14 just keep getting more lucrative: their 2011 deal with Canal+ is estimated as being worth up to US$ 228m over five years, and while the performances of the French national team have declined in inverse proportion to the money coming into the French club game, the club owners aren’t the FFR. Most of them – judging from their actions and how they’ve flooded their squads with non-French players – don’t really give a shit about the national team, whatever they may say in public. Actions speak louder than words, and all their teams are full of foreigners.
Walk It Into The Net
Most sports fans will have heard or read that a major factor in Arsenal’s decline over the last decade has been their rigid wage structure, which has meant both that they’ve lost their top players to wealthier/more fiscally irresponsible teams, and have been unable to attract the top echelon of proven players, who can earn more money elsewhere … well, the Irish provinces are now in a similar situation.
The provinces are no longer at the top table when it comes to procuring players and, with the IRFU cutting down on the number of central contracts that take expensive players’ wages off the provincial books, they’ve got more mouths to feed as well.
Because they are restricted in terms of acquiring adequate replacements for valuable Irish players by dint of NIQ regulations [as a major part of the provincial remit is providing players for the Irish national team], the players themselves have more leverage than they had in previous years when it comes to negotiating with their provinces.
When you combine those in-house squad management factors with the decline of the euro, the rising wages for star players in privately owned, multi-millionaire-backed French clubs [in a big market country where rugby is firmly entrenched as a national game] and the emergence from relative obscurity of the Japanese Top League teams as extremely generous paymasters, we may have already seen the back of the NIQ glory days in Irish rugby.