Rugby: Brown switching focus to Otago

Tony Brown.
Tony Brown.
Otago coach Tony Brown is back from Japan and it looks as though another top Japanese player will once again be following him home.

Brown returned to Dunedin late last month after helping coach Panasonic Wild Knights in Japan for another year.

The Wild Knights lost both competitions in the country at the semifinal stage, losing to Toshiba in one game and Suntory in another.

Brown, who was assistant coach, said the standard of the competition was increasing every year.

''Japanese players are getting better and the foreign players that come in now have to front. It is no longer seen as a way for players to simply retire to,'' Brown said.

The game was very fast, and although not overly physical, players had to be very fit.

Sonny Bill Williams had played for the Wild Knights last season but only turned out in six games because of injuries, ending with a three win, three loss record.

Brown would head back to Japan for another season with the Wild Knights after the ITM Cup finished.

His mind now switched to Otago and the ITM Cup season.

A group of players had started training up to four times a week in the gym and also had one field session a week.

But he wanted to leave the players to train with their clubs until the provincial season gets nearer.

Club rugby was scheduled to kick off on March 28 and finish at the end of July.

Places would be left open in the Otago squad for players who impressed in club rugby.

About 80% of players had been signed by the union for the coming year, but details were still being finalised. A full list of contracted players would be released by the union later this month.

Lock Rob Verbakel was believed to be heading overseas and other players were also weighing up their options.

Last year Japanese test players halfback Fumiaki Tanaka and hooker Shota Horie arrived in Dunedin through Brown's connections and played club rugby for Zingari-Richmond.

They were selected for the Otago side and both are playing Super 15 this season - Tanaka playing for the Highlanders and Horie for the Melbourne Rebels.

Japanese winger Akihito Yamada was also keen to come south to try his luck and Brown said he would arrive after Japan had played in the Pacific Nations Cup.

He would have to play club rugby and play well to be picked in the Otago side, Brown said.

A confirmed draw for the ITM Cup was due to be released in the next couple of months and Otago has the extra lure of a Ranfurly Shield challenge against Waikato.

A draft draw had the challenge early in the season but that could change before the official draw is released.

The ITM Cup starts in mid-August.