In an ongoing series on rugby in Japan, Michael Burgess catches up with former All Black Stephen Donald, who has played for four different clubs across six years in the Asian country.
Ask Stephen Donald for the funniest memory of his time in Japan and an epic Christmas party springs to mind.
Donald, who became a cult figure after his role in the 2011 Rugby World Cup win, has spent five seasons in the Asian country since 2013.
He has played for four different company teams — Mitsubishi, Toshiba, Suntory and NEC — and his season with Suntory (2016) saw some unforgettable celebrations.
Suntory Sungoliath, formed in 1980, have dominated the Top League since its inception in 2003, with a record five championships.
"They are a powerhouse team and we won both competitions that year (Top League and National Knockout Cup)," Donald tells the Herald. "Obviously they are one of the biggest booze companies around so it had some fringe benefits for celebrations and things like that. That was pretty awesome too."
Suntory, founded in Osaka in 1899, is a huge operator in Japan and also own Beam Inc, the third biggest distillery in the world, with Jim Beam as the flagship brand.
"We went there for Christmas one day and you had two options: they had a pallet of Suntory Premium Malts on one side and then a pallet of Suntory Highballs. If you weren't into beer, you were straight into the eight or nine per cent whiskey and waters by lunchtime.
"They know how to do things at Suntory. Money is no issue for them and the parties were pretty good."
Donald moved to Japan in 2013.
A move to English club Bath hadn't worked out — "I wasn't exactly having a great time up there and pretty much wanted out" — and he had some mates playing in Japan.
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A couple of Japanese clubs flew him over during a bye week and he decided to take the plunge.
He had done his homework and had a fair grasp of what he was in for, but was still surprised.
"I had already left New Zealand once so knew things were done differently but nothing fully prepares you for the Japanese way of doing things," said Donald. "A few boys had told me it's nothing like home and it never will be and don't even bother trying to change it. You need to go along with it.
"In a rugby sense there are many ways to skin a cat and it might not always be done the easiest way there, but you have to remember you are in their country and an employee of a massive company."
Donald cites a spell at Toshiba with fellow former All Blacks Richard Kahui, Liam Messam and Cory Jane, a quartet with almost 150 tests matches between them and hundreds of Super Rugby games.
"Between the four of us I thought we had a pretty good grasp of rugby," says Donald. "But some of our ideas were politely put to the side, and that was the way it was. There were ways we thought we could do things a bit better, but you have to go along with it."
As another example, Donald says at one club there was no such thing as a "short, sharp training session", because the players were all company employees and the hours had to be justified.
"It is a bit different and that is what a lot of people struggle with, but in some ways it was quite nice. In New Zealand there was a lot of responsibility to run parts of teams and up there you were just another player."
The reluctance to integrate new ideas can be down to long standing traditions at a particular corporation team, or the fact that sometimes "company men" are promoted sideways into rugby roles without possessing great knowledge. It can also be tied into the hierarchical norms of Japanese culture, with a clear split between the playing group and staff.
But it is changing, and Donald points to the success of Wayne Smith at Kobe, Jake White at Toyota and Robbie Deans at Panasonic as examples of foreign influence permeating deeply throughout a club for a positive result.
Donald started his Japanese foray with two years at Mitsubishi, in the second division.
In both seasons they finished top, but missed out in the promotion-relegation playoff, which is weighted heavily towards the Top League teams. He subsequently inked another two-year deal, then had second thoughts.
"It was a great retirement package but I woke up one morning on my break and thought I didn't want to go back right yet," says Donald. "I was going on 30 and cruising along.
"I got the urge to come back and play for Waikato and then get back into the Chiefs fold. It wasn't the smartest financial decision I have ever made but I don't regret it for a second."
There were spells at Suntory (2016), then Toshiba (2017), before linking with NEC Green Rockets last year.
Now a Japan veteran, Donald says the experience can be hugely dependent on where you are based.
"In the middle of Tokyo or the middle of Osaka you have a very different life to somewhere more out of the way," says Donald. "The further you get away from the main centres the less English is spoken, which is fine, you have to learn the language, but there is no getting around some issues.
"The rugby is enjoyable and the money is great but what might stop you spending 10 years there is the down time. There's not so much you can do as far as your leisure goes; it can be complicated, even if it is just organising a golf club that will take foreigners on their course."
Overall, Donald has loved his time in Japan, particularly the camaraderie with the local players.
"A lot of them are still company workers and rugby is still just a joy to them," said Donald, invoking memories of the amateur days here.
Most Top League games are played in the afternoon, and sometimes, depending on the schedule, he says you can be "wrapped up by midday" on a Saturday.
The food is a highlight — "not just Japanese food but anything they do is great, with the attention to detail and freshness" — the culture and traditions are fascinating and he is still amazed by the levels of respect and honesty.
"You hear stories of boys losing their wallets full of cash on a night out, and it will be in your letterbox the next morning without a cent taken," says Donald. "In terms of safety, there's nothing that can ever do you wrong. And there's no such thing as cutting a line, everyone waits. Even at the train station, with thousands of people, everyone is courteous."
The 35-year-old feels the level of rugby has got stronger, but that correlates with the increasing influence of overseas players.
"There are a lot more foreigners now on [Japanese] passports, plus other [Asian] passport holders, there can be up to eight or nine foreigners on a team," says Donald. "The competition has got a lot stronger, but has the level of the Japanese rugby player got stronger? Probably, but I don't know."
In a World Cup year, it's not surprising that Donald's mind easily drifts back to the 2011 edition, when his late call up — and subsequent heroics in the final against France – earned him legendary status.
"It was a crazy time," says Donald. "To be honest it's the days after the final that I remember the most vividly and most fondly, those three or four days. Obviously I remember the game but everything that followed was the amazing part; the parades, the time we got to spend together as a team, before it all sort of disbanded. You will never be in that same group, or for some of us never be in the All Blacks again."
That World Cup is also the topic of conversation whenever he gets stopped by fans or punters.
"It's usually about white baiting or the jersey to be fair," laughs Donald, of the tight-fitting No 21 he wore in the final. "That's what they want to yarn about. But people enjoyed it, they loved telling you where they were or what they were doing. It's pretty cool that it means so much to so many people."
It also means that the difficult memories of 2010, where Donald's family even copped abuse after he was largely blamed for the Bledisloe Cup defeat in Hong Kong, have been banished.
"That put it to bed," said Donald. "You don't hear much of that now. It's obviously a good thing on that front. They would rather talk about the other stuff, which from my point of view I would too."
Donald will be back in the public eye during the Rugby World Cup as co-commentator on Spark Sport and TVNZ, and can't wait for the event.
"It will a huge success," said Donald. "It will be unbelievably run, everything will be on time and it is the friendliest and safest place on earth. When it is on it will be massive, but the [overall] impact is tough to know. It's up to the Japanese Rugby Union how they build on that."
*Michael Burgess travelled to Japan with the support of the Asia New Zealand foundation