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Robbie Deans expects a beefed-up Top League competition will be “the equivalent of Super Rugby” in 2020 and will help sustain the development of Japanese players beyond the Rugby World Cup.
Japan’s New Zealand coach Jamie Joseph has spoken of the importance of the Sunwolves’ Super Rugby involvement in preparing his players for a World Cup campaign that has culminated in a place in the quarterfinals against the Springboks on Sunday.
Joseph said the Super Rugby experience meant “we got exposed to the level of rugby that we would face at the World Cup”.
But the Sunwolves are being axed from Super Rugby after the 2020 season, fuelling concerns about whether Japan can sustain its progress without regular involvement in elite competition.
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Deans – the former Crusaders and Wallabies coach – has coached the Panasonic Wild Knights in Japan’s Top League since 2014.
He said Joseph and his Kiwi assistant Tony Brown “have done a great job” in getting the Brave Blossoms into the playoffs for the first time. He supports Joseph’s comments on the value of the Sunwolves’ Super Rugby stint.
“Any time players are exposed to a different level is good for them. They come back better for it,” he said.
Virtually all of Japan’s World Cup players have had Super Rugby experience with the Sunwolves between 2016 – when the franchise was first admitted to the Sanzaar fold – and 2019.
Deans said Joseph – who has also coached the Sunwolves – “basically didn’t use” a lot of his frontline international players in Super Rugby this year. “He opted to prepare his group by having a virtual 214-day training camp where they were playing B teams, but just worked on the habits they needed to master.”
Japan were showing “the value of the cohesion you get out of that amount of time together”.
Some key Japanese players have also had Super Rugby experience with overseas franchise.
Flanker Lappies Labuschagne played 50 games for the Cheetahs and the Bulls, captain Michael Leitch spent four seasons with the Chiefs, halfback Fumiaki Tanaka had a similar stint with the Highlanders and hooker Shota Horie had two years with the Melbourne Rebels.
Wing Kotaro Matsushima also played five games for the Rebels and spent time with the Waratahs in Australia and the Sharks in South Africa, where he was born to a Japanese mother. Props Keito Inagaki (Rebels) and Asaeli Ai Valu (Western Force) also had some Super Rugby exposure outside Japan.
Deans – who has six Panasonic players, including Horie and star wing Kenki Fukuoka, in the World Cup squad – has seen Sunwolves players “bring back the habits, mindsets and attitudes” developed in Super Rugby to their Top League clubs.
“What has come out of that is the level o
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