Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Wild Knights, happy days for Brown-san

In Japan, Herald on Sunday sportswriter Michael Burgess looks up a former All Black renowned for his courage and finds him just as revered there.

Tony Brown is the man in Japan. Photo / Photosport
Tony Brown is the man in Japan. Photo / Photosport

If you think Tony Brown is a legend round Otago parts, wait until you come to Japan.

The former All Black has clocked up eight seasons there since his first stint in 2005. When he arrived, Panasonic (then called Sanyo) were a relatively unfashionable provincial club but they have achieved unprecedented success in recent times. They have made every club final in the past five years, winning four of 10.

"He has probably been the most important foreign player we have had in the history of the club," says long-time team manager Seigo Ikeda, "not just for what he has done on the field but what he does in guiding the younger players."

"He's pretty big around here," says Mike Delany, the man who now wears Brown's No 10 jersey at Panasonic. "He has done so much for the club and understands the culture really well. It's no coincidence that results have started to turn around since he returned [after this year's ITM Cup].

"I don't know if the club has ever forgotten what happened in 2008," says Panasonic team-mate and former Wallaby Daniel Heenan, referring to the episode where Brown needed life-saving surgery after complications related to a ruptured pancreas - then tried to return to the field as the club pushed for the finals.

Brown was admitted to hospital after feeling some discomfort and developing a fever. He had been blindsided in a tackle which had ruptured the organ. As the infection worsened into acute pancreatitis, doctors had to operate.

"It was pretty severe," remembers Heenan. "The doctors said it was serious and told his wife it was 50-50 and it all depended on Tony and how strong he was as to if he pulls through."

Brown spent six weeks in hospital - including three in intensive care, losing a lot of weight and muscle mass.

"After he got out, he tried to come back and play to help us but there was nothing of him," recalls Heenan. "He had lost so much weight."


It is a remarkable story in an unremarkable place. Located 100km north-east of Tokyo, Ota is far from the cosmopolitan chic and bright lights of the capital. With a population of just over 200,000 people, it's a small, nondescript town, the home of giant carmaker Subaru surrounded by large rice plantations.

As we drive through the maze-like streets, Brown points to a near-completed McDonald's restaurant, on a corner that was just a patch of land four days earlier - "they are pretty efficient over here."

Later, we stop at a petrol station. "Watch this", smiles Brown. "It's bit different to prepay back home." One attendant rushes over to pump the gas, another proceeds to wash each window. He offers to empty the ashtray and gives Brown a cloth to clean the inside of his windscreen.

We arrive at the club and 'Brown-san' is warmly greeted by everyone. Inside the plush building, several players are getting treatment, while departing halfback Fumiaki Tanaka is meeting with a club representative to go through the details of his trip to New Zealand.

"I didn't really know what I was in for when I first came here," says Brown, "but I loved it almost straight away. There are frustrations - especially in the first year or so, when you are adapting to the Japanese ways. But you have to buy into the culture completely and then you get respect."

Sanyo were not a rich club at the time and mainly recruited younger foreign players, rather than those chasing big retirement cheques. The same group has stayed together over that time helping the club evolve. Brown says that while the rugby is a couple of notches down on Super Rugby, it is no cakewalk.

It's fast and players are super-fit, partly as a result of their four month pre-season.

As an import, there is pressure not to miss games, while rock-hard grounds in sub-zero temperatures in winter (there is not much rain in Ota) present special challenges.

However, teams live and die on the strength of their local players. At Panasonic, they work most mornings before training each afternoon. The job vary, though - Brown tells of a prop employed as a 'dog catcher', responsible for rounding up any strays who wandered on to factory grounds. He nabbed one in five years.


As much as Brown has served Japan, the country has also allowed him to flourish as a player and coach. He did his coaching apprenticeship there, making the step into the ITM Cup this year a little less daunting.

"You can try things here rugby-wise, including different systems," says Brown. "There are the same number of challenges as back home - they are just different."

Life here seems good for Brown and Delany, and got better with the recent discovery of the 'Kiwi cafe' on the outskirts of town. Run by an expat, they plan to introduce their team-mates to the delights of steak and cheese pies, mussel fritters and fish and chips.

Brown is employed as a 'team adviser', though it soon becomes clear that he is the de facto coach. He plans to continue the dual Otago-Panasonic roles for the foreseeable future.

"I think now I have found the perfect balance and feel very lucky," says Brown. "I have a lot of respect for this club and this country and it has been good to me, too. Long may it continue."

- Herald on Sunday

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