Wallabies skipper Michael Hooper is recharging in Japan where he feels the Top League could yet produce a new Japanese presence in Super Rugby.
Hooper’s first dabble with the Top League has been two appearances off the bench in the unfamiliar No.20 jersey for the undefeated Toyota Verblitz.
His sabbatical away from Super Rugby is the mental refresher he hoped for although he admits it is tough watching the trials of his NSW Waratahs from afar.
Register for Stan Sport now to watch every minute of Super Rugby AU and the Japanese Top League. The new add-on Sport package is available for just $10 a month with customers able to get a 30-day free trial for a limited time only.
Hooper has joined former All Blacks skipper Kieran Read and Springboks fullback Willie le Roux as the superstar sparkle to the go-ahead Toyota club.
So team-focussed and quick to move on is the Test rugby caravan that Australia’s decorated flanker is really getting to know Read for the first time. That does seem remarkable considering they played against each other more than 30 times in Tests or Super Rugby over more than a decade.
“Of all the times, once in a changeroom after a game was probably the only time we’ve really met before. Other than that, you shake hands, walk off the field and fly halfway around the world to the next game,” Hooper said.
“It’s been refreshing.” There are definite hints of the Top League becoming a rugby version of cricket’s T20 tournament in India. Samu Kerevi and Beauden Barrett (Suntory Sungoliath), Brodie Retallick (Kobe Steelers) and Bernard Foley and Malcolm Marx (Kubota Spears) are just a few of the other genuine stars relishing the rugby and culture on top pay cheques. It’s more than that.
“I’ve heard a lot of cricketers, when they speak about the IPL, say they are (finally) able to meet guys, chat with people, they’ve played against for a long time,” Hooper said.
“It’s making that community of elite players closer and there’s a sharing of ideas.
“It hadn’t really dawned on me until coming up here where Kieran, myself, Willie and other players have been able to talk about anything and everything.”
On Tuesday night, Read looked so relaxed he might have been in a deckchair sipping a sake if he hadn’t been joining Hooper on a 40-minute Zoom conference from Japan organised by the Top League.
Hooper will be back in Australia in late May to resume his 105-Test career but Read is 16 months removed from the pressure after a decorated 127-Test run. He’s enjoying some playful niggle with Hooper too now New Zealand’s Test teams are at No.1 in the world of rugby...and cricket.
“It’s very rare that we are above Australia in cricket and rugby so I’ll certainly take that. It’s going very well,” Read said with a smile.
"In terms of playing here in Japan and in terms of pressure and where I’ve come from, this is slightly different.
“It harks back to maybe an older time in rugby where guys played the game because we loved it. We still do competing for your national team but the expectations and scrutiny are always there.
“This is really exciting being up in Japan. I’m really enjoying the rugby. It’s a high-quality level but it certainly means I can enjoy what’s outside the game as well.”
The champion No.8 was recognised wherever he went in NZ as a rugby star.
In Japan, sometimes it’s only because he’s a towering 1.93m. Or because of those cauliflower ears. Or the exaggerated Wyatt Earp moustache he’s cultivating.
“You are not as recognised as you are at home. I think people look at me in Japan because I’m a big bloke or a foreigner on the street or in the supermarket not because I’m a rugby player,” Read said.
With a grin, Hooper agreed: “Kieran is noticed in the supermarket probably more for his ears and moustache, not some of the other stuff. They are the concerning things.” Read joked that some Hooper traits were ingrained.
“Actually, we were on the field together in the first game and Hoops must have still thought I was wearing a black jersey because he came into a ruck and split my eye. We clashed heads,” Read said.
“He was still on autopilot.”
Hooper: “It was an accident.” Everyone agrees that the boom created by Japan’s pulsating advance to the quarter-finals at the 2019 Rugby World Cup on home soil needs to be harnessed.
Just where Japan fits in the complicated jigsaw that is the world rugby calendar is the conundrum.
RWC2022: Women's World Cup postponed
Sadly, because of COVID restrictions worldwide, the Japanese national team has not played a Test since October, 2019. The Sunwolves no longer exist in Super Rugby.
Japan’s Top League chairman Osamu Ota is upbeat that the domestic competition’s growth will spur more international opportunities.
He flagged that a company-based Top League side joining Super Rugby or another international tournament in the future will be up for discussion.
“Yes, of course. Rather than the current top league we are transforming to a brand-new league next year. One of the plans we want to have is the opportunity for participation in other competitions,” Mr Ota said.
“We are open to any matchmaking, we will have many discussions around club competitions. If there are opportunities for Japanese clubs we would love to challenge it.”
Hooper agreed that encouraging further improvement in Japanese rugby was important for world rugby. It will happen rubbing shoulders with experienced international players in the Top League and also with working out international competition options.
“I have only been in Japan a short time but, on the playing side, if you are around professionals who’ve done it for a long time, it brings the level up,” Hooper said.
“You learn, I’m learning, so for some of the young foreign players and Japanese players it’s going to do volumes. It’s a two-way street of learning and giving back.” Read said that he played in front of more than 40,000 fans at a Toyota Verblitz home game last season before the COVID restrictions muted crowds.
No Super Rugby crowd in the regular season has come close to that for years.
When asked if a company-based team might be the best option to recreate a Japanese presence in a new Super Rugby format in the future, Hooper said all options had to be considered.
“I think the rugby world should be open to any and every idea that’s out there at the moment to keep pushing the game forward,” Hooper said.
“You mention the IPL in cricket. Is the IPL a potential for somewhere like Japan where you get (more) guys from Europe or others from the southern hemisphere?
“There are plenty of ideas out there and whether they are reasonable to execute is the challenge within the thick, busy schedules.”
Hooper’s arrival at Toyota Verblitz has reconnected him with Simon Cron, head coach at the club and a member of the Waratahs’ 2019 coaching staff. He definitely sees Cron as Super Rugby coaching material.
“Cronny is doing a great job and is obviously very hungry to be in a head coach position,” Hooper said.
“I’ve certainly seen growth in him since I was last coached by him in 2019. His knowledge is so great and bouncing ideas of Kieran and (former All Blacks coach) Steve Hansen is only going to improve him more and more.”
Read chimed in: “If (Verblitz coaching godfather) Steve Hansen has anything to do with it, he (Cron) is only going one way which I believe is NZ.
“I think he has a big future moving forward.”
Hooper responded: “You know my answer...the opposite. Simon loves Sydney.”
Hooper said the delayed start to the Top League would mean a late May return to Australia and dealing with two weeks of quarantine before he rejoined any Wallabies camp.