Return of the Samurai

By Daniel Andruczyk

The 2013 installment of the Cabramatta International 9s promises to be the biggest and best yet. Once again featuring local teams from around the NSWRL competitions there are many international teams taking part such as from PNG. However the big news is that the traditional crowd favourites, The Japanese Samurais, are returning and Rugby League International Scores was able to catch up with their coach for the tournament, Mark Sargent, and discuss their prospects and get bit more insight into the sport in Japan.

Mark is the head coach for the Samurais but his appointment does not just come out of the blue. As it turns out Mark spent many years living in Japan and between 2000-2005 was involved in playing Rugby League in Japan. He’s now on the Cabramatta Rugby League staff as an Assistant Coach and thus when contacted by Konishi Amane who is the CEO of the Japanese Rugby League, if he would coach them, he jumped at the chance.

In the past, because of the tight Japanese laws on how much vacation they can take, they only got a week in and had historically poor defensive team. The Japanese wowed the crowds with their attacking flair but their defence was spotty at best and tended to get hammered by many points. RLIS is assured that this year will be a very different case.

“This will be the strongest Japanese team in years” Mark assures me. “There has been a growing interest in the game over there and we now get some tier 1 University Rugby Union players playing the game”.

This has translated to the national team as well according to Mark “Many of the strong Union Players are coming out this time round”. Mark goes on to say “For the first time in many years the JRL has had selections for the team rather than having to ask for players to be in the team”. This is encouraging indeed!

Japan will arrive on the shores of Australia with a 17 man squad. They will play an International against the Portuguese (made up of local A-grade players) on the 31st January in Sefton. From that 15 of the players will be selected for the International 9s as the tournament only allows 15 players in the squad for the duration of the tournament.


Mark Sargent, Japan Samurai’s Head Coach (left) and Daniel Andruczyk from Rugby League International Scores

The preparation for this tour however has already started. “I have sent the guys in Japan the tactics and game plans I want them to work on and concentrate on” mark says, “I also will have them video and send them to me so I can see their progress as well and better target what needs work when they get here”. It also turns out that with his role at Cabramatta he has the chance for the Japanese to have a proper training session either with the Sydney Roosters NRL team or the Newtown Jets NSW Cup team. This should give them even more experience and also be great for them to meet some of the superstars of the game.

Over the last couple of years, information has been a bit hard to get out of Japan about the state of the game and Mark provided some good yet sobering insight into why that was. Japan hasn’t made the trip to Australia for a couple years now and they had an international lined up with the USA in Hawai’i which fell through last year.

“Cost was a part factor, and getting time off, but we know Japan the last two years has been hit very hard by the earthquake and tsunami”. He goes on “This had an effect on everyone, including the players in Tokyo who left the city to go back to their home towns to help out and look after their families or to get away from the radiation in Tokyo”. But it seems now, with the majority of that sorted out, the game is getting back on its feet.

There still are only a couple clubs in Japan, the Tokyo Warriors and Tokyo Gaijin team. The Gaijin team has mainly ex-pats and internationals playing against the all local team in the Warriors. But for the first time last year the JRL have taken on a pro-active role and are travelling to the Kansai region around Osaka and are holding training sessions there. This kind of development has not been done before and positive actions like this can only pay off in the long run.

So I asked Mark what are the aims for him with the International 9s, what does he want to see from the Japanese team?

“Essentially there are two things I want to see happen. The first is to see every individual improve. Second is to be competitive”. And how does he intend to achieve the second “Defence! Historically in the past the Japanese have excited crowds with great attaching football but their defence was non existent. I want to get defence into the team. If that can happen then we will be competitive.”

“Its all about having good short term goals and being realistic with what you can achieve”. Wise words indeed.

What of the future internationally for the Japanese? Well there are no firm plans yet for 2013 though there has been talk of an Asian Cup this year which Japan and many of us will look at with interest if it were to get up and running.

So it seems that Rugby League is on the up and up in Japan. Their destiny is in their hands. But one thing will be sure, at the International 9s they will be a crowd pleaser and be sure to get out there in February to see it.


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