Eight years into Japan move, former All Black Isaac Ross 'not in a rush to get back home'

Uprooting your family and life in New Zealand and moving them an 11-hour flight away from home would be a big challenge for most people, but it’s one former All Black Isaac Ross and his wife Arnia met head on.

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Eight years ago, Isaac moved with his family to play professional rugby in Japan and he hasn’t looked back since. Source: 1 NEWS

"People find it hard living away from home sometimes, but we have that mentality that home is where your family is," he told 1 NEWS. 

"My wife and the four boys have really ingrained ourselves in the culture here in Japan and we love it."

Ross had a meteoric rise into rugby fame playing first for Canterbury before being selected for the Crusaders, then stints with the Highlanders and Chiefs.

He would go on to don an All Blacks jersey in 2009. But the tough competitive environment of professional rugby in New Zealand saw Ross’s time with the All Blacks cut short.

"I was still starting out my career in New Zealand and I was probably still a little green," he explained. 

"I think everyone’s career is different and I was lucky enough to make it at a young age, but at the same time I probably made it too young."

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The former All Black said he was still “green” to the game when he was first selected to play for the team. Source: 1 NEWS

Not making the national side might seem like a career-crushing moment, but for Ross - the son of a former All Black and a Black Fern - it was a chance to focus on a better work-life balance.

"Obviously playing in New Zealand and playing rugby in general – it’s a religion, it’s a culture. Everyone lives and breathes it in the circles that you run with so in that respect it was amazing as a kid growing up in New Zealand becoming a professional rugby player, playing for your country. It was something that I had a lot of pride in.

"I was thrust into the limelight quite early and then wasn’t selected in the further years and the light dimmed down a little bit, so we made a decision as a family that it was time to head overseas."

The eight-Test All Black and his wife packed up their lives in Christchurch in 2011 and moved with their two young boys at the time to Japan, where he now plays for the NTT Communications Shining Arcs.

Playing rugby in Japan

Being a semi-professional sport in Japan with private companies owning teams and players working for the company that owns their team, rugby in Japan is a world away from the professional sport it is in New Zealand.

"In New Zealand, rugby is a religion regardless what team you play for. Everyone is mad about it," Ross said.

"But in Japan they are just company-owned teams so the followers that follow the teams are generally the company workers."

With only a small number of foreign players being able to play for a team, it can be a bit of pressure being the only full-time professional.

"That puts a bit of pressure on yourself because they’re expecting a lot from you and they’ve brought you over here to perform and that brings out the best in you as well."

Being a semi-professional sport, the environment for foreign players is much different to that of the camaraderie that Kiwi teams have, says the 34-year-old.

"They only play and train in the afternoons, the rest of the Japanese boys work for the company - the foreigners are just the professionals.

"Whereas everyone in New Zealand is professional, so everyone is sort of paddling the same boat and we’re almost like brothers fighting and stuff like that."

This doesn’t mean the Japanese players don’t lack passion for the game.

"Because Japanese are really respectful – in terms of them playing they’re very physical, they’re very courageous.

"They’re not that big, but they put everything into it and there is none of that overseas niggle, rough and tumble off the ball sort of stuff. I suppose in respect it’s a very clean game here in Japan, but it’s very competitive and they love it here too."

Rugby World Cup changing future of the sport in Japan

Since Japan’s shock win over South Africa at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, the popularity of the sport has increased. But the popularity is not yet to the extent of other sports such as baseball where players are superstars.

“When you’re rolling around town nobody knows who you are. You’re just that big foreign guy going around the town taking up space,” Ross jokes.

But with this hosting rights to the 2019 World Cup, the sport has gained some traction.

“Hopefully, with being the host nation and a lot of advertising increasing the popularity of rugby we’ll see a lot of more young people go down the path of rugby versus a lot of different sports.

“So hopefully this 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan will be a good stepping stone for rugby here.”

The country is drawing in its fair share of superstar rugby figures with both Kieran Read and Steve Hansen moving to Japan next year.

Playing in Japan becoming more popular

Playing in Japan is becoming more of a draw card for Kiwi rugby players, especially those looking for a leg up in the game or a change from playing in New Zealand.

Former rugby player turned rugby agent Luke Bradley from LRB Sports says Japan hosting a Rugby World Cup is garnering a lot of interest for playing over here.

“The success of the tournament and experience in Japan throughout the tournament will most definitely draw more players to Japan.” 

He says he’s already seeing a lot of interest.

“As an agent, I'm finding players taking part in the tournament are enjoying the tournament so much that they are getting in contact to see what opportunities there are to play professionally in Japan.

“I wouldn't be surprised if the awesome hospitality, exceptional food, cleanliness of Japan and life structure has played a part in this.”

He says the tournament is also a positive for those already playing here.

“A lot of them [players] are now receiving offers to take part in advertisements, get out in the schools to further promote the game and give speeches at big events. “

Future plans

For Ross and his family, there is no rush to move back to New Zealand while he can still play in Japan.

"Obviously, I’m getting a bit longer in the tooth and all good things must come to an end, but we’ll be looking to retire later rather than sooner.

"There have been opportunities over here to do some coaching and that’s an opportunity that would be good for me – it’s a chance to continue to stay overseas and particularly over here in Japan.

"We’re not in a rush to get back home to New Zealand."