Barnes at rugby peace in Japan

Beth Newman Profile
by Beth Newman

Ota, two hours north of Tokyo, is home to one of Japan’s most successful Top League teams and it might just be where Berrick Barnes has found rugby solace.

Barnes has just finished his third full season at Panasonic Wild Knights, in a year that will make this the longest-standing club stint of his career, surpassing his 45 matches at the Reds.

It’s far from a destination for the 51-Test Wallabies back to ease his way through the back half of his career, though.

“I've trained harder with rugby over there than I ever did here (in Australia). We train hard, we do a lot of training but because we're run by a corporation, like Panasonic, we're effectively company employees,” he says.

“You don't understand how big they are - they employ like crazy. - Berrick Barnes

“The head of Panasonic came to our function the other day and he was talking about, he had a meeting with Vladimir Putin or something like that - I was just going, 'This is unbelievable,' we're sitting with a guy who has meetings with world leaders.”

Half the team juggle rugby with a job at Panasonic, effectively guaranteeing them an income for life.

Kenki Fukuoka is one of the most promising players in the Top League. Photo: Getty ImagesOne of Panasonic’s most promising stars, Kenki Fukuoka, who scored six tries in one Top League game last season, is midway through a medical degree, already set on rugby retirement once he graduates.

“Some of the smartest guys at university can't get those jobs those boys get, but then they can (also) be professional, where they get paid probably far more but if you get cut, that's it,” Barnes says.

“When I left school, I didn't even go to Schoolies, I went straight into Broncos preseason training.

“That's the reality of it now (in Australia) and that's good and bad but that's just the way it is.”

Barnes is happy out of the media cycle of Australian sport, armed with too little Japanese to be a regular, and he’s not the only one benefitting from a new environment.

Robbie Deans has helped foster Japan and New Zealand rugby relations. Photo: WalmsleyFormer Wallabies coach Robbie Deans moved to Panasonic after the 2013 Lions series, with a weight off his shoulders.

“I think he's loving life more than anything now,” Barnes says.

“I think he's come up there and gone, 'Whoosa' almost, it's like he's got out of all that limelight, he can be himself and I think we saw more of the coach who was at the Crusaders (in Japan).

“In Australia, it's hard - he was under an incredible amount of pressure there at the Lions, especially that (2013 British and Irish) Lions series, it built up to that point.

“I suppose, he was hounded and that. Now, everyone realises it's not easy to coach's a hard job. - Berrick Barnes

“Anyone who takes that on is going to have a lot of stress in their lives.”

Robbie Deans had questioned the attitude of some players. Photo: Getty ImagesBarnes couldn’t settle for long in the early part of his career.

He went through three clubs in seven years before reaching a crossroads that few had openly faced before - on the verge of retirement after four heavy head knocks.

“You just get anxiety about going back on the field and (thinking), ‘Is it going to happen again?' and (when) you're running, I felt like I was seasick, I felt like I was going to be sick, driving, looking at computer screens and it just doesn't go away,” he recalls.

“The worst thing is being around a football environment because there's no scan that tells you there's [anything] wrong but you're like, 'I'm not right' and the coaches are there going, ‘Mate, can you play?'

“I think the badge of honour about playing on's gone now and I think that's a good thing.”

Berrick Barnes battled with concussion issues during his time at the Waratahs. Photo: Getty ImagesDiagnosed with ‘athlete’s migraine’ in 2011, Barnes became one of the early cautionary tales of the dangers of head knocks, though he has gone through relatively unscathed in Japan.

“I tried a heap of different things - meditation, Chinese sort of things, I even did boxing, different sort of stuff to get by,” he says.

“I just wanted to give myself every chance so that when I got back on the field, I thought, ’Alright this is it, if I get another knock, I'll pull the pin, but if not, I’ll go well.

“There's one thing I've learned - you can have bung knees and shoulders and all that but you need your faculties." - Berrick Barnes

Barnes is content splitting his time between Ota and his Lennox Head home with wife Bec and children Archie and Matilda, dipping his toe into the local rugby scene while considering a post-career coaching move.

If Barnes were to move into the clipboard space, he wouldn’t be lacking for mentors - he has worked under some of Australia’s biggest-name coaches, including Wayne Bennett, but it began with the Kingaroy Red Ants.

“I honestly think that was the best grounding I ever had,” he says.

Berrick Barnes has had plenty of big name mentors in his rugby career. Photo: Getty Images“One of my biggest coaches there, he just passed away last week, they had a big funeral there, over 1000 people turned up for it.

“You just hope that stuff doesn't die. You need mums and dads to sit in canteens and buy the jerseys and do that stuff.”

Whatever happens now, though, the 30-year-old is comfortable in the path that has led him to this point.

“You think you know everything at bloody 22 or whatever. I wish I could go back and slap myself sometimes at that age and go, 'What were you thinking?',” he says,

“I left certain places, certain times, then things happened but you can't (regret it). If I didn't go, I wouldn't have other things in my life. - Berrick Barnes

“I don't think you ever make too many bad choices, you just makes ones that you learn a lot from and definitely going to Japan was a good one.”