Wheeler relishing time in Japan despite the odd frustration

Joe Wheeler looks to stop former Crusaders team-mate and Kobe Steelers halfback Andy Ellis in a Japan Top league match in Tokyo last year. Matt Giteau (left) comes in to help on defence. Photos: Getty Images
Joe Wheeler looks to stop former Crusaders team-mate and Kobe Steelers halfback Andy Ellis in a Japan Top league match in Tokyo last year. Matt Giteau (left) comes in to help on defence. Photos: Getty Images
Japan now seems to be the destination of preference for many of our top players. But what attracts them to the Land of the Rising Sun? How do players used to the intensity of Super Rugby get up for what are effectively games between company teams?

Rugby writer Steve Hepburn talks to former Highlanders lock Joe Wheeler about the Japanese rugby experience.

The best piece of advice Joe Wheeler would give any player who goes to Japan is straightforward.

Adapt quickly, accept the culture and enjoy yourself.

Wheeler will begin his fourth season with Suntory next season and is lapping up his time with the side.

But Japan and Japanese rugby are different from the way the game is structured in other countries and there are plenty of frustrations if you let them get to you, he said.

The Top League has 14 teams - promotion and relegation are in play.

In earlier times, Wheeler climbs high in a lineout in a pre-season game in Queenstown in 2016.
In earlier times, Wheeler climbs high in a lineout in a pre-season game in Queenstown in 2016.
Teams coached by former Otago players Greg Cooper and Mike Brewer earned promotion to the Top League last season.

The entire league is centred around company sides and big names such as Toyota, Panasonic and Yamaha provide teams.

These are massive business organisations. Suntory, the side for which Wheeler plays, owns Jim Beam, Frucor in Australasia and had a revenue in 2017 of more than $US19 billion ($27.7 billion). Toyota had a total revenue last year of $US260 billion.

So these are big, big corporations.

In Japan much of life is centred around work. It is live to work rather than work to live.

Rugby is strong in the universities and university games can attract crowds of 50,000.

Players then leave university and are hired by big corporations to work - perhaps as sales reps - and also play rugby.

Wheeler said the bulk of the teams- up to 80% - were made up of employees of the corporation.

Wheeler said the employees were well looked after and would get a car, accommodation and a bonus if they met a specific sales target.

''The companies do want to have a rugby team as it provides an outlet for employees. They work so hard and will never leave work before their bosses, just as a mark of respect,'' he said.

''So the companies set up these teams as an outlet and also for people to be proud of their companies. To win the title is very prestigious for the companies and its workers.

''We lost this year in the final to Kobe but I think, along with Panasonic, we have won the most titles, and that is a huge honour for the companies.''

Wheeler (31) said Japanese people loved to work and the company was a big part of their lives.

Socialising with work people was a big feature of Japanese life and sport teams became part of that. The corporations viewed the teams as part of their business.

Crowds were on the rise and a big match would attract up to 30,000.

The season -when it would take place next year was yet to be confirmed - was relatively short involving about 15 games a year over four months.

Pre-season though was long - three to four months and involved plenty of running.

But that was the way it was, Wheeler said, and like a lot of culture in the country it was best to roll with it rather than question it.

''They are very traditional in everything they do. It can be very frustrating but that is the way they have been doing things for centuries and they are not going to change it.''

An example was going up escalators - those standing had to move to the left yet in Osaka it was standing on the right.

''And they all back into car parks. That is the expectation to do that. Then there is the money system which can be very difficult for a foreigner.

''They have a 1 coin, which really is worthless ... you go buy like a Suntory bottle of water, it is 112 and you think why not make it 100? And it is all cash. Not like here. But it works for them.

''They don't do daylight saving. They could have some great long nights but they don't.''

Wheeler said despite the frustrations he said they were only small and his family of wife Courtney and new baby daughter Indie (12 weeks) loved the lifestyle.

''We are really well looked after by the company and you do get time off. Strangely, playing for a company team you don't do any promotional work.''

The rugby was based around speed and was far less physical than Super Rugby. The breakdown was more above the ground and about getting the ball free and away.

Five foreign players were able to play for company teams - two of them capped and three non-capped.

That has risen in recent years which he said was helping playing standards although may be limiting the opportunities for Japanese players.

The money was obviously an attraction.

''What I think guys are now realising they can go to Europe and play in 35 to 40 games or they can go to Japan play in half of that and get about the same money.

''And it is way closer to New Zealand and friends and family. It is one flight, a few hours, as opposed to a day and a-half travel from Europe.''

Wheeler said the money was part of the reason players went as they looked to set themselves up for life after rugby.

Players still wanted to be All Blacks but the difference between what you got as an All Black and a Super Rugby player was large.

Japan becomes an attraction for those players getting on in years and not cracking the national side.

Wheeler lives in Tokyo with the family on the 14th floor of an apartment. There is not much grass to play on in the backyard but he is not complaining.

''The Japanese people are very welcoming and just love helping out and being friendly.''

Wheeler has signed on for another two years and said as long as his body hung together he would see that out.

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