"I Want the Wallabies to Do Well" - Bernard Foley: Fly Half Talks Australia Under Joe Schmidt & Curtain Call in Japan - Ruck

“I Want the Wallabies to Do Well” – Bernard Foley: Fly Half Talks Australia Under Joe Schmidt & Curtain Call in Japan

Wallabies legend Bernard Foley has long been a leading name in the Japan Rugby League One. The fly half is considered amongst the most tenured international stars currently playing in the Far East, as he helped pave the way for countless Super Rugby talents to ply their trades in Japan.

Foley is currently enjoying his second stint in the Japan Rugby League One, having been a mainstay with Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay since 2020. However, the Australian first tested the waters in 2015, when he took a season long sabbatical with the Ricoh Black Rams. Japan looks like it could well be the final stop for Foley’s decorated career, as the 76-capped Wallaby hinted that his time in the famous gold and green had come to an end in a Kubota Spears organised press conference.

Bernard Foley of Australia in action against Finn Russell of Scotland – Photo mandatory by-line: Gareth Davies/Pinnacle – Tel: +44(0)1363 881025 – Mobile:0797 1270 681 – VAT Reg No: 183700120 – 18/10/2015 – SPORT -RUGBY UNION – RUGBY WORLD CUP 2015 – QUARTER FINAL 4 – Australia v Scotland – Twickenham Stadium, Twickenham, London, England.

“I haven’t really thought about it (Wallabies return) after last year. (Missing out on) The World Cup and that sort of experience of it, really my focus has been on coming back and playing well over here. I haven’t engaged or spoken to anyone at Australian Rugby for about six weeks so, my focus is here, really.

“Not having thought about that at all, or going back and playing with a new coach they’ve brought in, new structures and they want to do things an easier way. Saying that the previous way didn’t work, so it’d be interesting to see which direction they take. That discussion may happen, but at the moment I’m definitely not thinking about it.”

With Joe Schmidt now in charge of the Wallabies, a new era has dawned ‘down under’, following the exit of Eddie Jones to Japan. Foley admitted to have been in discussion with former New Zealand hooker Dane Coles, who experienced Schmidt’s leadership with the All Blacks as recently as last year. Despite Coles only being full of praise for the Wallabies head coach, Foley is not banking on a return to the Australia set-up and is keeping his sole focus on bringing success to the Kubota Spears.

Joe Schmidt, Attack Coach of New Zealand during the Test Match between New Zealand and South Africa at Twickenham Stadium, Twickenham, London on August 25th 2023. – PHOTO: Phil Mingo/PPAUK

“It’s not, but it’s probably have to be a pretty, pretty significant change to go back and endure international rugby. I think, you know, just knowing that commitment and how inclusive that drive is to be in those national setups, take a look to go back in playing to international rugby.

“Look, I want the Wallabies to do well, and speaking to Dane (Coles) he speaks really highly of Joe (Schmidt) and what he’ll be able to achieve. So you know, if there’s somewhere I can help, maybe a little but as I said, I’m pretty settled at just playing club footie and spending my time up here.”

There is no denying that Japanese Rugby is one of the world’s fastest growing markets for the sport. With former England and Australia head coach Eddie Jones back at the helm of the Brave Blossoms. England are in for a tough challenge when they head over to Tokyo for an exhibition test in June, before their two-week tour of New Zealand in July.

Certainly one of the most experienced international imports to the JRLO, Foley spoke about how the league has grown during his time in Japan, and believes that the 2019 Rugby World Cup had a profound effect on the sport’s popularity. The 34-year-old has witnessed plenty of change during his time in Japan, and told RUCK about his excitement with the continued progression and appeal of the league.

“It was a long time ago (2020), I suppose the level of the competition is improved dramatically. I think the influx of world class players, but probably more so around the actual programs involved in the clubs. So the coaching, there’s elite coaches who are implementing great structures and programs around the high performance and medical, and just around the style of play.

“You get into so many different styles or players from South Africa, New Zealand, Australia. Now you got Welsh, Scottish, English players over here as well. So there’s a lot of IP (international players) coming towards this league. And you can see the competition has grown dramatically in a short period of time.”

“My first experience was just after the 2015 (World Cup) and when they’d beaten South Africa, and there was definitely a spike, the national interest there. A lot of the Japanese people now had an appetite for rugby, and we saw how much it went gangbusters through that 2019 (World Cup). You know, they had a dream run and the country got right behind it. There’s a lot of eager rugby supporters and fans here and they follow the game immensely. So it’s a great place to play and it’s well supported.’

The JRLO is certainly a league on the rise, with superstar-studded teams up and down the table. Following the 2023 Rugby World Cup, a total of 10 All Blacks who took part in France swapped New Zealand for Japan, as the likes of Richie Mo’unga, Ardie Savea and Beauden Barrett made their way to the JRLO. The Springboks have been tearing up the league for quite some time, with some remarkable teammates forming in the competition.

The JRLO has become the a leading league in the world where fans can watch an all-star cast of competitors. For example, Toyota Verblitz boast an iconic All Black halfback partnership of Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett, with Rugby World Cup winning Springbok Pieter-Steph du Toit in support for a heavy carry up the park. Bernard Foley has the likes of the aforementioned ex-All Black Dane Coles and Wales fullback Liam Williams on his side, in what is a truly one of a kind competition.

Earlier this season, the JRLO partnered up with New Zealand’s Super Rugby teams for the inaugural Cross Border competition. The February fixtures put some of the leading Japanese clubs against the established Super Rugby franchises, and was heralded as success. a notable triumph saw the Saitama Wild Knights triumph 38-14 over the Chiefs, which was a historic win for the continued progression of club rugby in Japan.

Foley’s Kubota Spears were narrowly beaten by the Chiefs, as the likes of Damien McKenzie orchestrated a 35-30 win over the Tokyo side. The former Wallabies fly half believes that such competitions will only continue to grow the game in Japan, and backs the JRLO clubs to be back up for future fixtures in seasons to come. Foley thinks that the market is there for an official Cross Border championship, with trophies and titles on the line to feed the ever growing audience.

“I think the more cross border exposure that this competition gets the better, in terms of they’ve got a great product that we’ve spoken about. There is a lot of running rugby and they pride themselves in that. So, I think it’s a great way to improve the standard even more, the high-performance aspect of the game, but also to put the Japanese rugby IQ level and attachment and identity on the rugby market.

“So I think it’s a good thing. I think it’s probably better to have these games probably not in the middle of our season. Our (JRLO) season goes on hold, I think we’re going to find a window where both sides have different strengths and whether that is a tournament that coincides or a championship style tournament.”

“I suppose there is a little imbalance. You know, I think the model over here, it’s a company model, right? It’s not a completely professional outfit across all the teams, although most of the top teams are going to a professional outfit. But you know, two thirds of our squad (Kubota Spears) are company workers or employees in the company.”

“So the model is probably not there completely, but that’s why in Japan, it works. But, as you said, the top teams are definitely up the likes of some of the Super Rugby teams. If you see Panasonic (Saitama Wild Knights) year in, year out, they’ve been the benchmark. And they set a great standard for rugby, not just here but just club rugby across all clubs.”

As the former New South Wales Waratahs man highlighted, a significant proportion of the Japanese players in the JRLO are in fact semi-professionals. In a style akin the English RFU Championship, the league is steadily becoming a fully-professional competition, with more teams each season offering full contracts out to their players. Despite the day jobs, Foley has certainly been impressed by the standard of competition out in Japan, and praised some of the local competitors he’s played with or lined up against.

“So that’s the exciting thing. One of your tasks is that we’ve got big squads here, we’ve got a lot of young kids coming in, fresh out of university, who are very talented and aspiring Japanese players, and they’re forever asking questions on how they can be better and what they can do.

“You know, they’re all big fans of the game they’ve watched games from all around the world. So their big rugby people, and the thing about the Japanese work ethic is that they want to work hard and train hard so you do become a resource for those sort of players.”

“I suppose, definitely, when you come here, the club don’t just sign you as a player, they want you to come in and have input. Bring you in as an IP (international player) and what you’ve learned from all the teams, the successful teams and coaching environments and cultures that you have been in the past, and come in and give that.

“I think that’s the exciting thing about Japanese rugby, it becomes a melting pot of how the game is played all around the world. And everyone brings their own sort of style, and we’ve got to put it together, and sort of come at it in the Kubota way.”

The Kubota way certainly reaped the rewards for the Spears last season, as the Tokyo side were crowned the 2022/23 JRLO champions. Foley was instrumental in his side’s triumphant campaign, as the Spears achieved a 17-15 win over the Wild Knights, and denied the Saitama club their third consecutive league title. Looking back on the championship win and what it meant to the Funabashi Bay area, Foley sounded off with a reminiscent recap of last season.

“For this club, sort of haven’t won a lot before. They’ve risen through the ranks over the last couple of years. But there’s a lot of people who have been involved in this rugby club for many, many years. And that was great. The joy of being a part of it, and seeing the satisfaction and enjoyment that a lot of the players and the management staff have been a part of the company for 20, 30 years, get to enjoy that. That would be a pretty significant achievement, to go back again.”

“It’s part of the community, but it’s also in Japan you choose a job for life as well. So a lot of these guys choose Kubota and your employer takes a lot of presidency. Not just in your work life, but in your entire life you’re in Japan. You’re very loyal and dedicated to to your employer, and Kubota are quite a large company, so there’s a lot of people who are attached and happy for us to do well. So it was good to be able to put joy on those guy’s faces.”