Sonny Bill Williams Panasonic Wild Knights, last year’s runner up in Japan Rugby Top League, are reportedly about to “break the bank” in luring All Blacks winger Sonny Bill Williams on a two year contract to play with them. To paraphrase Mark Twain, ‘reports of the death of the Japanese economy are greatly exaggerated.’ Rather than breaking the bank, Panasonic are about to break the mold of what Japanese rugby has been. This is especially significant as Panasonic (formerly Sanyo) has been one of the teams ardently defending a grassroots model, building a team from home grown non-elite players. It seems, however, that Japanese rugby has been caught up in the same kind of spending frenzy that characterized J-League Soccer in the years after the 2002 World Cup. Not only SBW, but Ma’a Nonu, James Haskell (Ricoh Black Rams) and Fourie du Preez (Suntory Sungoliath) played short stints in the Japanese Top League last season. Does anyone remember Ilhan Mansiz – a Turkish footballer who was one of the top performers in the 2002 World Cup? If you don’t it’s probably because he squandered what could have been a brilliant career by going to Vissel Kobe after the World Cup, at an age when he should have been vying for a spot on a top European side (27). With Ilhan on the team, Vissel Kobe reckoned they could get fans who normally wouldn’t go to soccer to come and watch the games, and Panasonic general manager Hitoshi Iijima echoes eerily when he says, “[SBW] is very famous in Japan and if he was to play in Japan we believe many non-rugby fans would know him.” Bringing in foreign stars did little for attendance of J-League Soccer, nor did it improve the quality of the Japanese league. It did, however, give Japanese players a chance to raise their game, and some individual players rose to the challenge of playing overseas, and this may be the long term value also for Japanese rugby. Playing with or against Sonny Bill Williams or Ma’a Nonu – even at 85% of their capacity – will push domestic players and maybe give them confidence to ply their trade overseas. For Japanese rugby to really develop, they need to send more players to top leagues in Europe and Oceania. The one left hanging in the balance may be Sonny Bill Williams himself. We understand that earning top dollar while not having to give it your all is as tempting for a rugby player as anyone else. With a World Cup in hand it is possible SBW can take a two year sabbatical from top level rugby and be back in form for England 2015. However, it is just as likely that he may get injured, lose motivation or drop below his best – because it is human to make just enough effort to get by in your present environment. Should he decide to come to Japan, we will welcome Sonny Bill as the player he is. Should he then decide that life is good here, he is always welcome to play for the Cru. Note: The image was taken from Wikimedia Commons and shows Sonny Bill Williams in 2010.

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