Japan the next threat to Wallabies

By STEVE SPINKS sport@northernstar.com.au IT'S not rugby league, AFL or soccer that could be the main threat to the ranks of Australian professional rugby union over the next decade - but Japan.

That's the opinion of former Southern Cross University Gold Rat Sean Hedger who is now the assistant coach to the Kobe Steel Rugby Club first grade side that plays in the Japanese Top League.

Hedger, who has been living in Japan for four years, was back on the Northern Rivers last weekend catching up with friends.

"At the moment a foreigner has to live there for three years before becoming eligible to play for Japan," the 34-year-old said.

"The JRFU (Japan Rugby) is looking at changing a rule to make those players exempt so they can play in Japan club rugby."

"At the moment there are only two foreign players allowed on the field for a club side at one time."

"So technically a young bloke from Australia who hasn't played much rep footy could move to Japan live there for three years and be eligible for the next World Cup and he won't count as a foreign player."

"If a player who is on the bench for Super 14 teams doesn't see himself getting into the Wallabies in the near future, then he could find an alternative playing in Japan."

"The ARU doesn't have to worry about the Larkham's retiring over here, they need to worry about the 23, 24 or 25-year-old's who are looking for an alternative career path and the money over there is just far greater.""

There is no salary cap for the Japanese Top League sides. "There are a few players like Larkham who get over $A1 million but a reasonable player could get about $120,000 a year which is one-and-half-times more than the bottom level player at a Super 14 province gets," Hedger said.

It's not just players the ARU have to worry about ... there are more coaching options in Japan than Australia as well.

That's how Hedger, who was the head coach of the Queensland Rugby Academy and assistant coach on the Australian Under-19 side, found himself in the Land of the Rising Sun along with his wife Allison.

"I'm pretty happy over there at the moment," he said. "I intend to say there as I guess it's the first step to a professional coaching career, but if something came up back in Australia I'd definitely come back."

"The sad thing is things are so limited over here for professional spots there are only four Super 14 provinces and that's about it.""

Rugby culture Japan has a strong rugby culture that dates back almost a century.

Big companies - such as Kobe Steel, Yamaha and Toyota - started teams for their employees so that they could be fit for work. Crowds of more than 20,000 are not uncommon especially when double-headers are played.

"The team I'm with is 85-years-old,"" Hedger said. "Most of the players work for the companies, but about one third of the squad is full-time professional."

"The others just usually have to show up to the office a few days a week."

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