Larkham and Grey on a ride down memory lane

Beth Newman Profile
by Beth Newman

If you’ve ever seen Stephen Larkham riding a bicycle and holding an umbrella over his head, chances are you might just be from Futako Tamagawa.

Larkham spent three seasons with the Ricoh Black Rams, based in Setagaya just outside Tokyo, cycling to training every day, rain or shine.

He lived in a house underneath a freeway with his family, a spot that had his teammates concerned.

“My old halfback was adamant there was going to be a big earthquake and the freeway was going to fall on our house and he wanted us to get out of there,” he said.

“That was before Fukushima (earthquake)...he was right about the earthquake but the freeway didn't fall on the house.”

The Wallabies are based about 25 minutes' drive from Larkham's old stomping ground his week, in Yokohama, ahead of their first Test against Japan in a decade, and their maiden encounter against the Brave Blossoms on Japanese soil.

Larkham and his fellow Wallabies assistant Nathan Grey both spent time in Japan during their careers, the latter spending five years in Fukuoka, another Japanese rugby hub.

The two are familiar with the landscape of the sport in the country, both the external health and the quirky internal hierarchy, a system of senpai (senior colleague) and kohai (junior colleague), a dynamic that has been known to impact team selections.

“I think the respect levels, the seniority levels in the playing group are quite comical when you first get over here,” Larkham said.

“The newbies, the first-yearers have to do whatever the senior guys want them to ‘carry my bag, wash my clothes’.”

It took some adjusting for Larkham’s family, living away from home for the first time, but after three seasons they almost didn’t want to leave, entrenched in a new culture.

There are plenty of Japanese links in this current Wallabies setup - Larkham and Grey’s in the coaching staff as well as a handful of players who have had Japanese stints.

Ben McCalman and Bernard Foley both played in Japan after the 2015 World Cup, while Sean McMahon is set to move to the Top League next year, and flanker David Pocock is in the midst of his second year with Panasonic.

And, though, Top League dalliances have oft been viewed as a nice way to spend the twilight of your career, Larkham said foreigners weren’t just here for a pay day.

The All Blacks have made three changes to their Bledisloe squad for Game Two. Photo: Getty Images“(All Blacks centre) Ma'a Nonu came over to Ricoh with the express idea of improving his game, his kicking game,” he said.

“It was good for him but not so good for his club because they wanted him to run.”

“You do get a lot of players coming over here to finish their careers 

“The bodies aren’t as big as Europe or Australia but the standard is still difficult because you are...competing like for like, every team has internationals and Japanese players. It's a real competitive game over here.

“Maybe not as physical but probably quicker.

“You need to be fitter, faster and bit leaner to play over here.”

The Japanese national team has proven its capacity for growth, first under Eddie Jones, and now showing its Kiwi influence with former Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph at the helm.

Larkham said the next step was ensuring that long-term change occurred in the hands of Japanese talent as much as foreign rugby brains.

“I think you saw that with Eddie, he really changed the culture of rugby over here by getting success at the top level,” he said.

“There have always been foreign coaches over here and they’ve had influence over the years.

“From what I've seen the teams that get the grasp of why they are doing something rather than just copying other teams is usually the most successful

“That's evident with (competition leaders) Panasonic and Suntory (today). They need to understand why they are doing things.”

The Wallabies take on Japan on Saturday November 4, kicking off at 2:40pm local, 4:40pm AEDT LIVE on FOX SPORTS.