Tackling the competition and COVID-19 in Japan

From her roots in Moerewa through to playing professionally in Japan, former Black Fern Janna Vaughan has tackled the competition all over the world. Currently she’s based in Yokkaichi, in the Mie prefecture, where she’s been playing sevens for the Pearls since 2018. She talks to Kirsty Sharp about playing in Japan and the impact of the pandemic. 

How is training and playing in Japan different to what you've experienced in New Zealand?

There's a couple of big differences. The first one is that The New Zealand system is not a professional system at the club level.

In Japan, the club level is for what we call gaijin (the foreigners).  It's a fully contracted professional environment which enables you to get to your best without being in that national level, like in New Zealand.

In terms of playing, I think New Zealand players have a lot more raw talent and flair but not necessarily the work ethic the Japanese have.

The game is quite fast here in Japan, at the national level but New Zealand has a higher quality of natural talent, which is hard to defeat.

JAnnaFormer Black Fern Janna Vaughan is contracted to the Pearls, based in Yokkaichi, Japan. Photo: Janna Vaughan/Supplied

What impact has COVID-19 had on your game and training?

Well, we’re really supported by our club and still getting paid throughout the COVID time.

We're still prescribed trainings and we’ve got pretty much bubble training. I’m in an apartment with five other girls in my team, so that's my bubble. We go to the gym together, we make sure that everything's clean before the next group comes in.

None of the fields are open at the moment so we’ve found a baseball park 10 minutes down the road from us.

That'll last until the end of this month, and then the fields open and we'll come back together as a team.

We’re following the guidelines and rules of our city and it's different to New Zealand because of the different politics, so we're allowed to go out and do things in our city, but we can't leave our prefecture.

For me, my contract’s been cut quite early. But my general manager has been really proactive and looking for other opportunities for me to kind of be like the semi-professional Japanese players, so working part of the day, and training the other part.

Out in the community, what day-to-day changes are you seeing due to the pandemic?

I suppose just the freedom to go out. Mainly in Japan, this means going out to eat.

Eating is a big part of the culture here and going out and socialising over a meal is really big. So not being able to do that has been quite tough on all of us.

But the rules have loosened off a little bit now because our prefecture hasn't had any increase in coronavirus cases over the last couple of weeks.

Janna articleDuring the pandemic, Vaughan has kept up her prescribed training within a bubble with other team mates. Photo: Janna Vaughan/Supplied

Is there much talk of when sport may return to normal in Japan?

There was a little bit of talk about the top league returning to play in June, and other sports as well.

For us, that means that the fields can be open for us to train but things are changing all the time.

If we get to the end of this month, and it's still not under control the government will put restrictions in again, so it's just taking it week by week.

During this time there's no competition for the gaijin, for me, but hopefully that'll start up in November.

With this virus, things are changing so being flexible and understanding of the situation is really important. Things change in life and sport quickly and I've learned to adapt to change over the last few years.

There's been quite a lot of media coverage in New Zealand around the NZRU and what the future will look like for rugby post-COVID. How do you feel seeing this coverage from overseas, and how do you feel being based in Japan where professional rugby might be up and running in the not-to-distant future? 

I think the New Zealand Rugby Union won't be sitting there doing nothing. I know some of the people in the NZRU and they’re good people with a big passion for the women's game.

I think it's just gonna take time for them to kind of pencil together what it’s gonna look like.

As players we need to be patient and understanding of the situation and know that the people at the top are there for a reason. They've got a plan.

It's the same in Japan. I trust my leaders here and I trust the people that are pencilling things together for me to play.

Janna 2Photo: Janna Vaughan/Supplied

What would you think about playing if it was to an empty stadium?

If you're there for the crowd, I think you're there for the wrong reasons.  You should play your best no matter who's watching. And you should always play like someone's watching.  

But obviously it's going to impact the fans and how they can connect with the team, which is quite a tough thing, especially in Japan with the sponsorship that's invested into the woman's game.

If you were sitting at the board table for NZRU, and they say, what's one thing that we could do for the woman's game in New Zealand post-COVID that would be beneficial, what would it be?

It would be to create a greater professional environment and a platform for women to be a part of.

For example, that might mean Super women’s teams, contracted players across the FPC framework, or contracted payers across the Sevens national framework. 

Just more professional opportunities. But if that’s the case then as women, we need to step up to the plate and work hard to get the club and regional level of the game to a professional standard in New Zealand.

And that takes the players, coaches, management and media to all step up. 

This Q and A has been edited for brevity and clarity

 - Asia Media Centre