No downside to international rugby relations

Super Rugby
Beth Newman Profile
by Beth Newman

The Highlanders see ‘no downside’ to an ongoing relationship with Japanese powerhouse Panasonic Wild Knights.

Otago’s Super Rugby side has a strong connection with the Top League team and Japanese rugby in general, the first club to sign a Japanese player in Fumiaki Tanaka, back in 2014.

Current Highlanders coach Tony Brown was a long-time Wild Knight and has been working closely with the club, while his predecessor Jamie Joseph has recently become Japan national coach.

Fumiaki Tanaka played at the Highlanders, behind Aaron Smith. Photo: Getty ImagesThe Wild Knights have sent a handful of players and staff to the Highlanders to learn from the Kiwis, as well as hosting All Blacks scrum coach Mike Cron at the start of seasons, while Highlanders’ physios and other staff have also spent time in Japan.

Panasonic’s competitiveness against some of the best players in Super Rugby was shown in Brisbane on the weekend, progressing to the quarter-finals at the Brisbane Tens.

Highlanders assistant Jon Preston, speaking at the Tens, there were only positives to come out of trading information.

“We've got a strong relationship with Panasonic and we've had players play in Japan, they've got players come over to us and coaches as well, good relationships there,” he said.

“I don't really see a downside, put it that way. It's the way things are going as well.

“You can share experiences, you can share knowledge. We’ve had (players and staff) go to each other's camps and work together in that respect as well and I think that grows everyone who's involved, both the players, management, coaches, everyone.”

Tony Brown spent close to a decade at the Highlanders. Photo: Getty ImagesPanasonic winger and soon-to-be Melbourne Rebel Kentaro Kodama is one player who’s benefitted from the relationship and showed his potential in Brisbane

Wild Knights coach Robbie Deans, who has worked hard to help build rugby in Japan, was bullish in his predictions for the 25-year-old, speaking after their exit from the Brisbane Tens

“I think Kentaro laid down a challenge or a statement to the Rebels that he's not coming to make up the numbers when he bounced out of (Berrick Barnes’s) pass and gassed them and scored in the corner,” he said.

“He was saying he's coming here to play, he's not coming here to make up the numbers.

“We witnessed Akihito Yamada go to the Force two years ago, they didn't give him a single minute and yet he was the very bloke they needed.

“If they weren't sure about that, it was shown to them last year when he was a top try scorer in Super Rugby after round nine.”

“It's up to the Rebels really."

Robbie Deans has helped foster Japan and New Zealand rugby relations. Photo: WalmsleyKodama said his time in New Zealand had borne fruit.

“I felt like my speed, my work rate and my ability to handle that level of contact and physicality were up to the mark,” he said.

“I think if I continue working on my stamina then I can meet that level.”