Coaches Sing Praises of Japan Rugby Top League

With a new professional league set to launch in 2022, three well travelled and successful coaches, now plying their trade in the Top League, believe Japan has the perfect platform to develop one of the top competitions in the world.

     Speaking 10 days before the final edition of the Top League kicks off, Robbie Deans (Panasonic Wild Knights), Frans Ludeke (Kubota Spears) and Todd Blackadder (Toshiba Brave Lupus) explained how the new league and potential cross-border tournaments will benefit the sport in Japan.

     And with the number of foreign-born players looking to play in Japan increasing they also had some words of advice based on their experiences here.

Robbie Deans Panasonic Wild Knights Head Coach  photo: ©Koichiro Nomoto

     “The game here is unrecognizable from five years ago,” said Deans, who has been in charge of Panasonic since 2014.

     “It has progressed through the conditioning work, so players are much better equipped physically now. They have been exposed to Super Rugby (so) they are better equipped mentally…and the intellectual property here is huge whether it be through coaches or rubbing shoulders with current internationals. And that’s where it has transformed.”

     “It used to be a twilight destination where players would go at the end of the careers. But now we have seven All Blacks from the most recent World Cup, six of the Rugby World Cup winning Springbok team, we’ve got five from the Wallabies, George Kruis (England) and Hadleigh Parkes (Wales).”

     Blackadder, who arrived at Toshiba in 2019 having previously coached the Crusaders in Super Rugby and Bath in the English Premiership, said that improvement in the domestic competition was evident in the performance of the Brave Blossoms.

     “One thing you saw during the World Cup was just how good the national team is and how they can compete with the very best in the world,” said Blackadder.

     “One of the things that is very clear here is the quality of the coaching and the competition structure itself is brilliant.”

     “The type of rugby that is played is free-flowing, attacking rugby, very much an attacking mindset and mentality. It’s a good standard of rugby and very competitive and can compete with most competitions in the world, and there’s a very good opportunity for it to be one of the best.”

Frans Ludeke Kubota Spears Head Coach

     Ludeke, who coached the Bulls to two Super Rugby titles in 2009 and 2010, said the World Cup had also a big impact off the field with big crowds not just at games but also at training sessions.

     “That brings an excitement for players,” he said. “And the word goes back to South Africa or to New Zealand and they say, ‘Listen, this is a great destination.’”

     “It’s an amazing lifestyle we have here…and the competition is really tough. There are many good teams here and we are playing against well-coached players and well-coached teams every weekend and it’s a massive challenge.” 

     And those players are not just the big-name imports.

     “Everyone in the team, especially the Japanese players embrace the team’s philosophy,” said Ludeke. “They are quick learners, are hungry for information and work really hard. There’s no one that can match their work ethic and their desire to get better and compete with the best.”

     “And that’s the nice thing about the Japanese competition. There are so many world class players here that you play against and train with that help you with your routines and find your standard.”

     Blackadder agreed saying that in his short time here “the players were an inspiration. They are so disciplined, so hard-working and so committed and they just want to get better.”

Todd Blackadder Toshiba Brave Lupus Head Coach

     The new professional league, which kicks off in January 2022, is also set to see the top Japanese teams go on to play in a some form of global or trans-continental tournament.

     “I think it would be great,” said Blackadder.

     “The way things are going everyone wants to play the best teams in all the competitions in the world and if there was an opportunity for the best teams in Japan from Top League to play against the best teams from other competitions, then that would be a very good thing for Japanese rugby and showcase how just strong the game is over here”

     Deans, who led the Crusaders to five Super Rugby titles before he became head coach of Australia, agreed saying the abbreviated form of a global club championship would see teams from Japan rise to the occasion.

     “In a champions type format, I think the Japanese teams would equip themselves very well,” he said.

     As for players wanting to come here, all the coaches agreed, things begin at the recruitment stage.

     “The best players make their team better,” said Deans. “And a big part of that is character. You need people who are prepared to give and make an effort, particularly here with the language barrier. People who are poorly motivated get found out very quickly.”

     Ludeke and Blackadder agreed.

    If a player was “not a giver and not a leader and didn’t understand the process of leaving a legacy then that was the wrong guy,” said the Kubota coach, while the Toshiba boss said “with the blend of the rugby cultures we all have they have to be team players and have the characteristics to add value.”

     And as Deans pointed out, there will be shortage of players wanting to come here.

     “The Top League is going to continue to grow. The secret is out courtesy of the World Cup. It’s a great destination, a great culture and players enjoy it.”