Duane Vermeulen in the Top League

Japan set to overtake Top 14 and Premiership to become No.1 destination

Exiled Englishman Tom Savage believes Japan’s Top League is ready to rival the Premiership and Top 14 as a destination of choice for the world’s best players.

Savage joined Tokyo-based Suntory Sungoliath last summer and the former Gloucester lock says the afterglow of a successful World Cup has percolated into domestic rugby.

With the Top League’s 16 teams embellished with top stars like Brodie Retallick, Dan Carter, David Pocock, Damian De Allende and Samu Kerevi, crowds and interest had been soaring before the Covid-19 crisis brought the league to a halt after just six rounds.

Savage 30, told TRP: “To see the buzz in the country during the World Cup was absolutely awesome. The knock-on effect that has had on the Top League with the support and TV viewing figures has been phenomenal.

“I’m lucky that the Suntory team has great history and been very successful, but all of the teams are competitive now. It used to be that two or three sides would dominate, but the league has evened out and you’re seeing a number of sides maximising their Japanese numbers as well as enhancing their squads with the foreigners they’re bringing in.

“There’s been awesome support for rugby here and you saw how the Japanese public bought into the World Cup. Across the league average crowds are around 20,000 and we’ve had some awesome fixtures against the likes of Kobelco Steelers, who’ve got Carter and Retallick in their side and sold out their 30,000 indoor stadium on the day we played them.

“It’s certainly going in the right direction with the supporter and TV numbers and you can only see the Top League going from strength-to-strength. It’s an attractive place and I think more guys from outside of Japan will want to come here now.”

A little over a year ago, Japan was the last place Savage had envisaged going, with negotiations over extending his eight-year stay at Gloucester proceeding smoothly.

However, he explained: “Only a knee injury at the start of last season had stopped me signing a new deal initially but negotiations were going to plan. Then an opportunity arose to come and play in Japan and the more I found out, the more the idea grew on me.

“I was pleased with my time at Gloucester and look back with fond memories, but if there was ever a time to do it, this was it. I didn’t want that feeling of ‘what if?’ if I didn’t take it.”

Gloucester lock Tom Savage
Globetrotter: Tom Savage left Gloucester to join Suntory Sungoliath last year. Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

Savage added: “The normality of the Premiership is the same year-in, year-out but everything is new here and it’s given me a fresh outlook on my rugby, one I’m really enjoying.

“The style of play has been fun to be involved in; it’s fast and you get lots of involvements in the game, so there’s more of an emphasis on running rugby and they base their style more on Super Rugby than the Premiership. Put it this way, my fitness levels are up!”

With his daughter born in Tokyo on Christmas Day, Savage was well settled in the Land of the Rising Sun before the break. He added: “It’s a two-year deal initially so let’s hope we can get back to normal and start playing again as soon as possible.

“I’d been able to get a good run of games and was really enjoying it. I can call lineouts in Japanese and I’m taking lessons two or three times a week so my working knowledge of the language is improving every day. All we need now is some positive news so we can get games going again.” 

NEALE HARVEY

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