'It harks back to an old time': Read and Hooper relish Japan's Top League

Paul Rees
·5 min read

Kieran Read and Michael Hooper captained their countries at the 2019 World Cup and are back in Japan as teammates at Toyota Verblitz, a team coached by Steve Hansen. Japan’s Top League will be restructured next year and it is estimated the tournament will generate more than £400m a year, helping it to attract more of the game’s top players in becoming rugby’s version of cricket’s Indian Premier League.

Read, whose New Zealand career ended at the World Cup, and Hooper, who has not had to sacrifice his international career by moving to Japan, are among a growing galaxy of overseas internationals playing in the Top League: Beauden Barrett, Brodie Retallick, Ben Smith, Willie le Roux, Malcolm Marx, Samu Kerevi, George Kruis, Alex Goode, Hadleigh Parkes and Greig Laidlaw are among the others.

Next year’s league will be made up of 12 teams in the top flight with two smaller divisions underpinning it. As the matches will be played in one block, the season is far shorter than club campaigns in England and France, allowing southern-hemisphere players to return home in time for the incoming tours and Rugby Championship. It takes them out of Super Rugby but eases the financial strain of the New Zealand, Australia and South Africa unions.

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“With so many top players coming to Japan it will raise the quality of the league,” says the Top League’s chairman, Osamu Ota. “It is becoming more global and our hope is that a Japanese team will have the opportunity to take part in another competition and raise the standard further.”

Read moved to Japan after a 14-year career in New Zealand and 128 caps. “It is slightly different here,” the 35-year-old says. “It harks back to an old time in rugby when guys played the game because we loved it. You do when you play Test rugby, but the scrutiny takes something away. I am not recognised here as I am at home: if anyone looks at me, it is because I am a big white guy in a supermarket. It takes the pressure off after a long time at the top.”

Hooper, 29, aims to play in the next World Cup and his time in Japan is a paid sabbatical after 10 years playing Super Rugby. “It is a different style here but very competitive,” he says. “There are guys from several different nations and you learn from them. If someone like me is experiencing that, it will do volumes for the Japanese players and the game here. The margins will become tighter as teams catch up.”

Overseas players may raise the profile of the game in Japan, but there is no danger of the Top League becoming like France’s Top 14 a few seasons ago, crammed with players ineligible for the national side. Only two non-nationals are on the field at the same time and as well as Read and Hooper, Toyota Verblitz have the South Africa full-back Le Roux on their roster.

“You get to know players you have played against for years but never really met,” says Read, talking about the fleeting acquaintances top players now make, with no time for socialising after matches, never mind the pandemic. “Now I can get Willie’s perspective on rugby and his different ideas. And the coaches here really have to coach because Japanese players are like sponges, absorbing everything and willing to practise for hours.”

The pandemic has prevented Japan from cashing in on their success in the last World Cup, when they reached the knockout stage. They have not played a Test match since and were forced to pull out of last year’s Autumn Nations Cup in Europe.

“Rugby needs to keep pushing itself forward,” says Hooper. “The debate over a global season provides potential for Japan and others. There are plenty of ideas, but fitting something into a busy schedule will be challenging; there are so many moving parts. An issue is the number of Tests played: have too many and you will not see players go super-deep into their careers because it takes its toll physically and mentally. It is not just the number of minutes on the field, but the time spent away from home.”

Read wants Japan to be embraced by the top nations. “They are one of the top eight sides in the world,” he says. “I hope we give them a chance and they will only get better by playing the top sides more regularly. They have a top coaching team and I think this is a great opportunity for rugby to become a global game.”

Read, New Zealand’s captain in the 2019 semi-final when they lost to England in Yokohama and whose final appearance for the All Blacks was in the play-off against Wales the following week, is used to travelling at this time of year to South Africa and Australia in Super Rugby and remaining in one place has given him the chance to watch the Six Nations.

“It has been very competitive and it was a pity that France’s match against Scotland had to be postponed,” he says. “I did not think Wales would be top at this stage and winning the triple crown was a massive achievement by them. They had a couple of fortuitous calls against England, but it does not matter how you win. If you defend well at the top level, you are on the way to winning. I am not sure about Test rugby having to go down the entertainment route because of the value it holds. It just needs help from the officials to ensure it does not become too defensive.”

England outplayed New Zealand in the World Cup but have not reached that level since, despite winning the Six Nations and Autumn Nations Cup last year. “I am surprised at how they have performed,” Read says. “I thought they would kick on from Japan. They have looked good in patches but if you are off by even half a per cent at Test level, you will get beaten easily if a team is up and on it.”

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