Life in Japan for foreign rugby players is pretty darn good these days.
The games are fast and flowing, the Yen is strong and substantial, and the spectators are increasingly beguiled with the sport and its stars.
Sean McMahon is right in the middle of all this. The former Melbourne Rebel is now in his third season with Suntory Sungoliath of Japan’s Top League.
The country’s premier competition is currently in the midst of a five-week hiatus due to concerns about the spread of coronavirus. Prior to that, it was creating interest around the nation – both on and off the pitch – like it never had before.
“Most days we have about 50 to 100 fans coming just to watch training,” says McMahon. “They literally spend the whole day around the clubhouse waiting for the boys to get out and train and get signatures.
“It’s incredible, the buy-in since the World Cup. There was one game against Kobe where we had about 27,000 to watch that game. It’s throughout all the teams not just us.”
The man speaks the truth. In the season’s opening round a total of 116, 637 fans poured through the turnstiles. That was a 39 per cent increase in spectators from the 2018-19 opening round.
It was only getting started. A week later, David Pocock’s side Panasonic had a whopping crowd of 37,050 turn up for its match against Toyota Verblitz.
Attendances at Suntory games have exceeded 19,000 thrice in their six hit-outs so far. This level of crowd-pulling is likely to continue as they surge towards another finals appearance.
The Sungoliath are perennial contenders and often champions of the Top League. McMahon was their starting No.7 when they last raised the trophy back in 2018.
That title was Suntory’s fifth in the competition’s 16-year history. They have come close to adding more silverware a couple of times since. In the ensuing 2018-19 season they were runners-up in both the Top League and the short-season League Cup.
McMahon is revelling in the opportunity to play with one of Japan’s elite rugby teams.
“I love it here. It’s a real great experience,” he says.
“It is a prestigious club to be at. To have the opportunity to be here has been awesome. The facilities and the culture over here when it comes to training and around the club is awesome,” he says.
The 25-year-old is one of a quintet of Aussies who are currently adding to the club’s history and culture. Matt Giteau, Samu Kerevi, Sam Talakai and Will Chambers also ply their trade with the Tokyo-based team.
The Sungoliath are actually a very mixed squad overall. Playing and living alongside some fellow outsiders has helped McMahon’s transition into life in Japan.
“We have a lot of Australians here but there’s also a lot of New Zealand players. I think there’s about 12 foreign players which makes it a bit easier. We all live in the same building with another team, Canon,” he says.
In addition to their impressive phalanx of foreigners, Suntory also possess a more than decent domestic posse. Among the home-grown talent are Rugby World Cup stars Yutaka Nagare, Ryoto Nakamura and Kotaro Matsushima. Who could forget the thrilling play of the latter in last year’s tournament?
Playing alongside the locals has been another highlight for McMahon. Their attitude and ability level have both impressed him.
“The Japanese boys here are exceptional. The way they train and play is quite something to see. It’s great to see how they are progressing as well,” he says.
McMahon was just 23 when he decided to depart Oz and embark on his trip to Nippon. That seems very young, but the Brisbane-born forward had contributed a lot to Aussie rugby in the preceding six or seven years.
He represented his country in four different teams: Schoolboys, U20s (in two different years), Sevens and the Wallabies. Add to that four seasons of Super Rugby plus NRC games with the Melbourne Rising.
It was full on, and you couldn’t blame him if he was feeling the pinch. A change of scenery seems like it was the ideal tonic for McMahon to recharge both his body and mind.
“Coming to Japan mentally and physically refreshed me,” he says.
“I probably did start to see a few little injuries towards the back end of my time in Super Rugby. It’s a lot of rugby and you don’t get a lot of time off before you’re pretty much going again.
“So mentally and physically I suppose I was a bit buggered, but no more than usual. It’s one of those things in footy where you just have to keep punching through.”
The first 12 months or so in Japan did seem to rejuvenate McMahon. A sure sign of that was him signing a one-year contract with the Sunwolves prior to the 2019 Super Rugby season. This would have translated into him playing back-to-back seasons as – unlike this year – Super Rugby normally begins immediately after the Top League season.
Alas, it was not to be. A foot injury sustained while playing for Suntory meant that McMahon never represented the soon-to-be-banished Sunwolves.
With the two competitions running concurrently in 2020, a go-round with the Howlers was not on the cards this year. But it does make you wonder – would McMahon consider doing ‘the double’ in the future with Suntory and an Australian Super Rugby franchise?
“I’ll just have to play that by ear,” he says.
“If the opportunity comes around and Suntory are happy for me to do that kind of that thing then it’s definitely something that I’d consider. But you’ve got to make sure that it doesn’t take too much toll on the body and shorten the kind of career that I want to have.”
Rebels, Reds, Brumbies and Waratahs: please take note.
While Super Rugby will certainly not be on his agenda this year, a crack at the Tokyo Olympics with the Australian Sevens team could very well be.
McMahon returned to the side for a quick cameo last November in Cape Town. He is not touring with them at the moment due to his commitments with Suntory, but will have no such constraints come July-August. Keep watching this space.
As for a return to the Wallabies, that appears to be at least three years off. McMahon has committed to Suntory until March 2023 and as an overseas player with less than 60 caps he is ineligible to represent Australia in 15s.
There is little doubt, though, that he will add to his 26 Wallaby caps at some point in the future.
“I definitely have the desire to do that. It’s just a matter of when, I guess,” he says.
“I still have a desire to play for the gold and anybody who has ever played for the Wallabies will say the same thing. It’s just about the timing and what’s best for me and my family on that front.”
McMahon’s Suntory contract will expire in a World Cup year. Australian rugby fans will be hoping that the national set-up does everything it can to then bring back their tackle-busting, forever unyielding, lion-hearted loose forward for good. The faithful will be already having withdrawal symptoms after two seasons away, let alone five.
But for now they will have to take their patience pills. Sean McMahon is having a blast playing frenetic footy in an exotic land whose fans cherish their rugby heroes like no other.
You can’t blame him for that.
Sean McMahon’s CV:
• 26 Wallabies caps
• 49 Melbourne Rebels caps
• 20 Suntory Sungoliath caps
• Australian Super Rugby Player of the Year (2016)
• Melbourne Rebels Player of the Year (2015, 2016)
• Wallabies Rookie of the Year (2015)
• Australian Super Rugby Rookie of the Year (2014)
• NRC Player of the Series (2014)
• Australia U20s Player of the Year (2014)
• Australia U20’s Captain (2014)
Also represented: GPS (Brisbane Premier Rugby), Melbourne Rising (NRC), Australian Schoolboys (2011), Australia U20’s (2012, 2014), Australian 7’s (2013-14, 2019), World XV vs. Japan (2015)
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Next Aussie Abroad: Josh Valentine