Asian game ‘is improving across the board’
Wallaby great George Smith has been seriously impressed with regional development of the sport after three years in Japan
If one person can gauge how far Asian rugby has come in recent years, George Smith is the man.
Having spent the past three years playing in Japan's Top League with Suntory Sungoliath, Smith more than anyone can pass judgment.
He took time out from playing with BGC Dragons at the GFI HKFC Tens at Sports Road to give his views on how the game is developing.
"It's improving across the board. Initially, I wasn't aware how good the standard of rugby was in Japan.
"I'd come into a Suntory team coached by a fantastic international coach, Eddie Jones. I knew the standards that he set, but I wasn't sure what the standard of rugby was there," Smith, 33, said.
"Once I got on the field, I was impressed. It was a very fast game, and although the physicality wasn't on par with the likes of Super 15s or Top 14 in France, the work ethic of the Japanese players was second to none.
"I wouldn't say that the majority of the teams were fantastic, but the top six were all competing at a high level."
Smith has won 111 caps with the Wallabies and next season he will play for French club Lyon in the second level of the country's professional league system. But he enjoyed his three years with Suntory.
"The club had success the three years I was there and we won four trophies in that time.
"I had a great time and definitely would think about coaching there in the future or be a consultant," he said.
"I've watched the game progress steadily in Asia."
It was definitely a big change of culture for Smith and his family in Japan as they had to learn not just the language but also about the Japanese people and their culture.
"They are very respectful and disciplined. I enjoyed my time there and tried to embrace the culture as much as I could," he said.
"When Eddie [Jones] became national team manager he identified areas they had to improve on.
"They've bulked up a bit more, so they can physically match bigger teams and it seems to be working."
One indication it was working was last year when Japan played the All Blacks.
In one scrum they got a turnover, which doesn't sound much, but it would have been unheard of a few years ago.
"It was quite amazing. They kept the score down, too, but to get a turnover at scrum time was a huge effort. In the past, it wouldn't have happened and they would have just got steamrolled," Smith said.
The BGC Dragons side was also being coached by a rugby icon in former All Black captain Tana Umaga. He, too, would happily ply his trade in Asia if the right job came up.
"I'd definitely consider coaching in Japan or in Asia. There are only so many coaching positions going in New Zealand," Umaga, 40, said.
"If I want to further my career I need to go where the opportunities are.
"The standard's are good in Japan and so is the pay. Both as a player and as a coach you have to make the most of what is available."