Now with Suntory Sungoliath, the former Gloucester stalwart is following an exciting new path
Meet Tom Savage, the Englishman taking on Japan’s Top League
For talented young players in Europe, the path to making it in this game is pretty well signposted. From school and junior clubs to academies and usually pro sides in just three major leagues, so many athletes thunder along it. On very few occasions do you see that route meander into Japan’s Top League.
Yet here sits former Gloucester skipper Tom Savage, in a cafe in Tokyo’s Harajuku area with his wife Lauren, trying to explain how he came to join Suntory Sungoliath.
“I had a lot of sleepless nights to be honest,” Savage says of the decision to continue his career in Japan. The 30-year-old lock made 142 Premiership appearances in cherry and white from the 2011-12 season, before signing a two-year deal and heading East in the summer. Now deep into pre-season and excited about the prospect of getting torn in for one of the most storied clubs in the league, it is an interesting time.
He goes on: “It wasn’t something I ever really anticipated being an option, because of how few English players have done it. The foreign contingent who are over here are mainly Super Rugby players and I think the Japanese mainly watch Super Rugby, with the time zones and things like that. I think they base their game around that a lot more.
“It was one of those things where negotiations were going on as normal with Gloucester (ahead of his contract running out), as they have in any previous year. Probably the only reason I wasn’t signed up early, as normally happens, was because I did my MCL in the first pre-season game. And then that meant I just wanted to wait until new players came in and I was fit and could see where I fit in, in the pecking order. And in the meantime, I got this call from my agent saying we’ve had some interest from over in Japan. We weren’t even sure which club it was.”
It turned out that his agents had an office in Australia that worked closely with Japanese clubs, one being Suntory. His highlights package and his CV – with its incredible number of front-line Premiership and European appearances – came across their desk. They wanted to know what would lure him over.
Lauren admits that even visiting Japan “was never on my bucket list” while Savage fully believed he would see out his career at Gloucester. Yet in the ultra-physical world of elite rugby, which is now set in a global marketplace, pictures can change.
After the Savages decided to bide time, an offer piqued their interests and they began the task of researching, finding out more about a land that can be as perplexing as it is wondrous. The lock would have long chats with Billy Twelvetrees during morning dog walks, bouncing ideas off him. After Willi Heinz sussed what was happening after spying open browsers on Savage’s phone, on a bus trip, he offered help.
It transpired that Heinz’s brother-in-law is centre Tim Bateman, who has extensive knowledge of playing in Japan and could offer advice over email. As things began clicking into place and the move was on, Bateman put Savage in touch with Joe Wheeler and Kosei Ono, who could both talk in detail about the Tokyo club.
At the end of the Premiership season, Savage headed over on his own. The Rugby World Cup has meant that that the Top League had to contort itself, with the main season not kicking off until January. But they had a ‘cup’ competition running for a few summer months. The second-row got stuck in.
Of this Savage exclaims: “Some people were moaning about the heat of the Rugby World Cup, but at times when I was playing over here in June and July, it was 40°C and my phone was saying it felt like 48!”
The lock then went back to Gloucestershire to spend a few months with Lauren, before they headed back to Tokyo together. Which is a bigger move than you think, considering that Lauren is expecting. The couple will spend Christmas in Japan and are well set-up for the baby to come while there.
“There’s no pain relief at the hospital I’m at, at all, not even gas and air,” laughs Lauren, before the pair explain that they have English-speaking medics and that they will be going for a water birth option, too. They are delighted with their choices and with the baby due just days before the Top League season kicks off in earnest, they look forward to having the family together for this adventure.
Slowly, they are making a home. Many of the players live in the same complex and they regularly ride share – Savage believes young back-rower Tevita Tatafu, who he has given lifts to, has a bright future in the game. The club, they say, have been incredibly accommodating too, with families regularly interacting and team assistant Ayumi Shiratori going above and beyond, helping them with translation, with understand bills and with finding their bearings.
Which just leaves the rugby.
“I think there’s a massive variation between all the teams,” Savage says of Top Rugby, pointing out that a South African head coach, a Kiwi head coach and a Japanese head coach may set up teams differently, while the foreign stars involved can shape things too. Kobelco Steelers, for example, are worth looking at with their Wayne Smith and Dan Carter-led group. But there’s more.
“If you look historically you might be able to say that’s the team with the big scrum while another team might like to sling it wide. But because a lot of the style of play is based on Super Rugby, it’s that little bit quicker. And the guys here are fit. We did fitness testing on Monday and the yo-yo scores for some of the forwards were outstanding, considering it was day one of pre-season. Whether it was the bronco test or the yo-yo, the level of fitness and professionalism is through the roof.
“The work ethic is awesome and the game’s a little quicker, and each team may have a unique style, but rugby is rugby at the end of the day, everybody kind of copies each other these days with forward pods and how you play out the back of that. So it’s how you execute it.
“Rugby has been big here for a long time – it’s bigger than people probably realise. But Japan doing really well at the World Cup probably helps that. You hear talk that Sunwolves have one year left in Super Rugby, but they might come back in. Are they bringing in a new professional league over the next couple of years or will Top Rugby stay as it is? Well there’s massive companies involved and the talent pool is pretty big; the quality of players is really good.
“You’ve got a lot of guys here now who have experienced rugby at international level, Sunwolves level or have played week in, week out against some of the guys coming over from other countries. So I can only see it going up and up and up.”
Which is glowing praise. When the season finally kicks off, Sungoliath will be coached by former Georgia boss Milton Haig, while Samu Kerevi comes in to join fellow Wallaby caps Matt Giteau and Sean McMahon. They have some big talents from the southern hemisphere.
So does Savage think more names from Europe should try and experience the elite game in Japan?
“Actually yeah,” he says. “I think it’s just an opportunity that doesn’t necessarily present itself to people, maybe because of timings.
“It was quite a unique situation for me, almost one of these sliding door moments, that had the season structure with the World Cup not changed it might not have ever fitted. That and the timing of being out (injured) within a Premiership season, and my contract and things like that.
“But everyone’s main fear is probably of the unknown. I’ve been very, very fortunate with the team I’ve ended up at, with a rich history of being successful.”
His is the rare move. But it is always reassuring to know that there are players – families even – willing to shoot for that life experience. Maybe others will start following their trail.
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