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The talent in the NRL made it inevitable that Japanese rugby would turn its attention there, says ex-Wallaby Toutai Kefu.
Kefu is one of Australia’s highest profile exports to Japan, playing five seasons for the Kubota Spears in the 14-team Top League and planning a return for the 2009-10 season later this year.
The 60-Test former Wallaby said agents from Australia or New Zealand would have instigated the process that has resulted in NRL stars Benji Marshall and Fraser Anderson attracting interest, but added rugby league first-graders would have little difficulty adjusting to the 15-man game in Japan.
“Obviously they’ve been given the word that these NRL players are very, very good players,” Kefu told AAP on Wednesday.
“Japanese rugby is not very structured so it would suit the NRL players especially … also with the new (experimental) rules.”
Asked about Marshall, Kefu said: “I think he’ll be great, he’d be a fantastic player. I have no qualms that he’ll adapt pretty easily.”
But whether recession-hit Japan joins the English Super League or France’s Top 14 rugby competition as the NRL’s major threats, Kefu is unsure.
Players like Wallabies greats Stephen Larkham (Ricoh Black Rams) and George Gregan (Suntory Sungoliath) can earn a “s***load” of money, he said, at the same time clubs are going under.
“Some clubs have actually turned amateur, have forfeited all their professional players and turned amateur,” Kefu said.
“There’s other teams that have spent a fortune on more players.
“Japan at the moment’s going through a huge recession but, depending on the club, they’re still willing to spend a lot of money on their rugby program.”
One benefit for Australian stars is life outside a media dominated by soccer and baseball but, Kefu warned, the culture is not for everyone.
“The main reason they do it is, obviously, the money and after a year it’s really hit and miss, you either love the place or you don’t,” he said.
“If you don’t like it and you’re in a bad area you really want to get out of it.”
Another former Wallaby, Matt Cockbain who played two seasons with the World Corporation club until 2007, agrees.
“You go over there with an attitude of thinking you’re going to change the way they are and you’re going to improve certain aspects of how they operate but it’s very difficult to do that,” he told AAP.
“It’s still got that old style respect for the elder culture.”
The Top League was created as a semi-professional competition in 2003 with clubs owned and named after Japan’s massive corporations.
The standard is approximately that of Sydney first grade.
Teams use interpreters with their imports and players are expected to be part of a 4-5 month pre-season, including a multitude of trials before the 13-game regular season.
The next season, which begins in September, will have a three foreigners per club rule, but one of them must also be eligible to play for the Japanese national side.
Speculation Anderson was being signed in order to qualify him for Japan’s 2011 World Cup campaign was wide of the mark, as a player needs three years of residency to be eligible unless they have a Japanese grandparent.
Cockburn said the Japanese threat to the NRL could be little more than player managers discovering another bargaining tool.
“I know a few guys over there that are coaching now and they tell me that you wouldn’t believe the names that come across their tables sometimes,” he told AAP.
“They’re put in front of them by player managers for one reason or another, either to jack up their existing contracts or it’s a genuine interest in the game.”