How playing in Japan helped Bernard Foley fall back in love with rugby

Former Wallabies fly-half Bernard Foley says playing in Japan helped him "fall back in love with rugby again" after a difficult 2019 Test season, suggesting the ambitious League One clubs should not be viewed as entirely evil through what are right now extremely concerned Australian rugby eyes.

With Japanese clubs circling Australian talent, or at least identifying players like Tom Banks and Noah Lolesio who face stiff competition to make the Wallabies squad for next year's World Cup, Australian officials are on high alert as they fight to keep their best players on home soil.

The reality is, however, that players will ultimately continue to head offshore when offered what in some cases are simply irresistible sums of money.

But there is more to it than that as well. Reflecting on his own experience since departing Australia following the Wallabies' quarterfinal exit at the 2019 World Cup, Foley spoke of the greater balance the Japanese season offered and how it had helped him recover from a sense of burnout after the off-field dramas that dominated that entire Australian season.

"When I made this decision I was looking for a new challenge," Foley explained to ESPN. "We'd had probably a lean year and there was a lot going on off the field, with the Super teams and with the Wallabies, it was time for me.

"I didn't think I was playing that well because of all the external things, different factors that were weighing me down, and I think for me that made the decision to go overseas an easier one.

"It's also allowed me to assess and and reflect on some of the things I was doing there, how to see a game differently and to fall back in love with rugby again because you have removed yourself from the environments you were existing in."

Pushed on just how big a toll the 2019 season had taken on him, Foley said the constant off-field negativity made it extremely difficult to enjoy life as a Wallaby and the rare opportunity to play at a World Cup.

"That whole year, everyone was doing what we thought was going to work for us, and just getting through, I suppose," he elaborated. "And reflecting on it, that was probably the thing that hurt me the most, we worked extremely hard, but a lot of time it was talking about things away from footy. And you're going there discussing other factors.

"And you also had the carrot of the World Cup, that is this great prize, and I think we lost the enjoyment factor, we probably lost the reason why you started playing rugby and why you fell in love with rugby as a kid, which is to go out there, to compete, to enjoy and spend time with the guys around you and chase these collective goals.

"So there were a lot of different factors, a lot of stuff happening, that probably just took away from that whole experience that showed me a different way to head post that World Cup."

Cynics will point to the fact that Foley had already made the decision to sign with Kubota Spears ahead of the World Cup, so too that his time in the Wallabies jersey was closer to the end rather than its beginning given he had just turned 30.

But when Foley speaks of the opportunity to refresh, to reset mentally, it's hard not to see how some other players might also be well served by stepping away from the cut and grind of a complete Super Rugby season and then a full Test campaign with the Wallabies.

"I think that is one of the attractions of Japanese rugby is that you train hard for long preseasons but you're lucky enough to have a decent break between seasons as well," Foley said. "The seasons don't cross over or crowd the calendar as such, so it allows you to get that break. But I think more than anything else it's the mental break, to be able to refresh, to re-evaluate and just try new things, challenge yourself away from footy.

"But then when you do come back into footy, you're really excited to get back into the program, to work on your body and to expand the program but also your own game as well. So that's probably one of the attractions of the Japanese season.

"It's not for everyone, some guys need to be playing footy 12 months a year. But I've found that ability to have that time on, and then that time off, really beneficial, for where I'm at in this stage of my career."

Foley's own story aligns with what Quade Cooper has said about his time in Japan and the clarity that he discovered both on and off the field.

Cooper proved to be one of the Wallabies success stories of 2021, with the veteran playmaker and former wayward soul returning to helped spearhead four straight Rugby Championship victories after initially offering up his services to Dave Rennie from a purely training perspective.

"I was really happy with Quade," Foley told ESPN. "For him to go in and perform, and add that maturity to the Wallaby attack, he steered the ship incredibly well especially after his hiatus and being away. You've seen the growth in him and that he can go back and settle in and do the job for the team.

"He would have helped the guys around him get a lot more confidence, he knows what is needed at Test match level, and that's why I still think it's still so valuable for guys like that to come into a team and impart their knowledge and experiences onto those guys who are new into the Test match arena."

While Foley is happy to spruik the benefits of playing in Japan, he also recognises the need for as many as Australia's leading players to be playing Super Rugby as possible.

Not only does that ensure that Australia's five teams can be as competitive as possible, but it also allows Rennie and his fellow Wallabies staff to keep far closer tabs on their progress.

And that's why the 71-Test playmaker, who guided Australia all the way to the 2015 World Cup final, believes the updated Overseas Player Selection Policy - the Giteau Law - had hit the mark in its aims.

"The guys have just got to understand what the rules are; we want the Wallaby jersey to be the carrot for any Australian player, playing at home or overseas, that should still be the objective," he told ESPN. "If you go overseas you've still got to play good footy and be attracted by it [playing for the Wallabies].

"But I think it does get the balance right in encouraging guys to stick around and forge their trade in Super Rugby and in Australia; I think it is still the best competition, domestically, Super Rugby. It's a great place for kids to understand the game and their trade.

"But you also need that experience or that influx of guys who have been lucky enough to go overseas, you do get a different perception and you learn from different guys around you. I can only speak from my experience here [at Kubota], playing with All Blacks and Springbok World Cup winners, you learn a lot and I think that is certainly an asset that players can bring back to the Wallabies as well."

Foley's Kubota Spears currently sit in second spot on the League One ladder with two rounds to go before the playoffs, the fly-half returning on the weekend following a few weeks out with a hamstring injury.

He is also keeping an eye on the other Australian players plying their trade across Japan, insisting it's not just Samu Kerevi who's enjoying a stellar season in Japan.

"The other Fijian, Marika [Koroibete], I think he's showed his worth and what he adds to a team with his work-rate and his ability to finish," Foley told ESPN. "He's behind a pretty solid pack there at Panasonic [Wild Knights], but he's been good.

"And I think Isaac Lucas for Ricoh [Black Rams] and how he's led the team and driven them around; they're probably lacking a little bit of talent but he's really impressed in terms of his skill, his ability to direct and also his running game. He's probably one player that has done really well. He's just a natural footballer."

Foley also continues to keep an eye on his old club, the Waratahs, and says he's been impressed by the team's trio of young playmakers and their willingness to play what's in front of them and not be rugby "robots".

He also believes Michael Cheika can do good things with Argentina, suggesting the personality of his emotive former Waratahs and Wallabies coach will marry up well with the spirit and passion of the Pumas.

As for a Cooper-like comeback of his own, Foley certainly hasn't closed the door completely. With his love for the game restored, he wants to win trophies and is adamant he can still get better as a rugby player, though acknowledges that is probably unlikely to result in a shock Wallabies return.

"It's always burning, the Wallabies jersey is the pinnacle," Foley replied when asked if he had unfinished business at Test level. "It's why I grew up playing footy and what I wanted to do as a young kid. As I alluded to before, I've still got ambition to play the best footy of my career, I still want to get better and improve and win trophies.

"I understand what my decision to come away means, but I'm really content with that. And if I have played my last game in the Wallabies jersey then I gave it a really good crack.

"There is always the carrot to play in that Wallabies jersey and to play in World Cups is the pinnacle, so that's always in the back of your mind and I think it should be in the mind of every Australian rugby player, that should be the goal. And that definitely hasn't extinguished or gone anywhere, it's definitely still burning."