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Liz McGregor

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Liz McGregor Latest

A yen for Japan

ONE wouldn’t automatically link Japan and SA in a single train of thought: there is limited cultural, tourist and economic exchange between the two countries. We are a young, diverse, developing nation. Japan has the third-biggest economy in the world, a 4.1% unemployment rate and an ageing, homogenous population right now shivering in below-zero temperatures.

But there is one connection between us with immediate consequences for an activity close to many South African hearts. In a Tokyo stadium on Saturday a whisky producer takes on a speed merchant and, once the dust has settled, our Super Rugby campaign should get an additional charge with the return of some of our star players.

The final of Japan’s Top League sees Suntory Sungoliath and Yamaha Jubilo battling it out for the privilege of carrying off the 2014-15 trophy.

Fourie du Preez and Schalk Burger play for Suntory. The Bulls’ Dewald Potgieter turns out for Yamaha. Du Preez, in particular, seems to have been a hit in Japan. And, judging from a recent interview on a Japanese website, he has comfortably adjusted to a more philosophical turn of questioning from reporters than he would be likely to encounter here. Fourie explained that, crucial to his performance, was to “see a picture in my head of how I want to play”.

“Is this picture like a third person seeing from above?” probes the reporter. “I just see good images from my previous experiences,” replies Du Preez.

He should be back here shortly. Ryan Kankowski and Jean Deysel have just returned from Japan to the Sharks. JP Pietersen and Frans Steyn are also due home soon. Jaque Fourie, currently contracted to the Kobelco Steelers, is rumoured to be negotiating a berth at the Sharks.

Japanese steel giant Kobe Steel, owner of the Steelers, has a soft spot for South Africans: they have just waved goodbye to head coach Gary Gold, who takes over as head coach of the Sharks, and will welcome in his stead Stormers coach Allister Coetzee later this year.

Former Springbok lock Andries Bekker still runs their lineouts.

Japan’s top corporations have become sugar daddies for South African rugby, providing temporary respite from the rigours of the professional game here. They not only pay huge salaries, bumping up players’ post-retirement funds, but they also provide a much more holistic, family-friendly playing environment.

All the big rugby clubs in Japan are owned and run by corporations. Most of their players are amateurs. They are company employees who work full-time and practice after hours. During the season they work in the mornings — in marketing, management or production — and practice in the afternoons. Once their rugby playing days are over, these players will remain with the company. There is still a jobs-for-life culture and a steady salary and job security is what counts. Rugby is an extracurricular activity.

Fewer than 10% of players are professionals — and most of those are foreigners. There are limits: there can be only two foreign players on each side on the field at one time. This means that, for the professionals, there is ample family time. Both Du Preez and Schalk Burger have recently added to their families and will have been at home for every developmental milestone. If they had remained tied to the relentless South African rugby schedule they would barely have seen their kids.

A Japanese stint is becoming a favoured option, even for some union administrators, because it means they can cottonwool some star players and are relieved of some of the financial responsibility for those players.

But what is in it for the Japanese? Unlike here, rugby barely causes a flicker on the national radar. Walk into any sports bar in Tokyo and a punter will be able to rattle off the names of 40 baseball or soccer players, even sumo wrestlers, but you’d get a blank stare when it came to rugby players. Someone like Schalk Burger might be noticed in the street for his size and blondness, not for his prowess on the rugby field.

Rugby is shown only on pay-to-air TV, and then fleetingly. It barely features on terrestrial television, which attracts the vast majority of viewers.

Most Japanese rugby players emerge through the universities, but it is the soccer J-League which commands the greatest attention.

Japan is hosting the 2019 Rugby World Cup. It must be a worry to the Japanese Rugby Football Union: how are they going to drum up sufficient support in the next four years? Do they have any hope of filling their stadiums?

Presumably it will help that Tokyo is hosting the 2020 Olympic Games. Nationalistic pride in showcasing the country for major international sporting events will already be swelling by the autumn of 2019, when Japan plays host to the world’s top rugby players.

And, from 2016, Japan will have a team in Super Rugby. Bizarrely, it will be part of the South African conference.

 *This column first appeared in Business Day