The Saitama-Queensland Shield will be contested for the first time on Friday night as the Queensland Reds and Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights clash at Kumagaya Rugby Stadium in Japan.
After a false start due to Covid last year, the pair’s partnership has been realised with Queensland currently being hosted by the Wild Knights while on tour.
Saitama Prefecture was Queensland’s first sister state relationship formed in 1984 and remains one of the most active among the many currently still operating between the two countries.
Like their respective Governments, Queensland and Saitama also share a similar bond with a strong culture of community, connection and legacy instilled by head coaches Brad Thorn and Robbie Deans.
“This partnership is fantastic,” said Thorn.
“We’re sister states – there’s a connection there, and there’s a strong connection between Saitama Panasonic and the Queensland Reds.
“Also, with Robbie Deans my old mentor – the master, we’ve been friends for a long time now. I played under Deansy so there will always be a connection there.
“Robbie has done a wonderful job up here. Panasonic this year were undefeated and champions - there’s a real strength here.”
Thorn’s former coach at the Crusaders now turned coaching counterpart at the Panasonic Saitama Wild Knights explained a lot of work had gone into this partnership.
“It’s good to be able to put something together that will pass the test of time,” said Deans.
“Brad gets in – he understands what the game is about, and these two organisations are similar so this is an event that will run for a long time and these blokes are very lucky to be a part of this first one.”
The Reds arrived in Japan on Wednesday last week and through their partnership with Panasonic, have been based at Kumagaya Rugby Park – the Wild Knights HQ.
“It’s just been well thought out by Iijima the General Manager here and Robbie Deans,” said Thorn.
“Five fields, state-of-the-art training facility, right next to it you’ve got a 25-thousand seat stadium and they’ve got a hotel here for the public or visiting teams.
“I haven’t seen it’s equal around the world – you know I’ve played in England, Japan, New Zealand and Australia, so just super impressive.
“We’re excited about Ballymore and what’s happening there with the new facility and stadium. I guess being here gives you a taste of what Ballymore will grow into with the facility (National Rugby Training Centre) being finished next year.”
After the National Rugby Championship (NRC) was disbanded in 2019, there has been a developmental gap of rugby between club and Super Rugby level – something Thorn knew needed to be changed.
“There were no games – there’s been a void now for three years.
“You can train but you need to play games of rugby. You can benefit from training and your pre-seasons, but the best learning comes from playing.
“The NRC was great to have, and we brought so many players through that but this tour gives the players opportunity to play but more importantly, play together to get that connection together.
“To have those Challenger Series matches for club players to play rep footy and then go away on a tour and have a Queensland-capped game against Panasonic is just good all-round.”
“It’ll be four games once we play Panasonic – four games which we didn’t have, so it’s been a great initiative for the Queensland Reds and Panasonic to come together.”
Friday night’s fixture at Kumagaya Rugby Stadium, located north of Tokyo in the Saitama Prefecture, will also mark the 30-year anniversary of the very first time these two teams played.
In 1991, a Queensland touring team captained by Michael Lynagh that included names like Tim Horan, Jason Little, John Eales, Brendan Nasser (father of current Reds frontrower Josh), Cameron Lillicrap plus Paul Carozza (current Reds Academy Head of Talent Identification) took on a Saitama XV side in Japan.
“There was a fixture in 1991 which was played by a very strong Reds team full of World Cup winners and they were successful that time against our current General Manager (Hitoshi Iijima), but these guys will talk about this for some time,” noted Deans.
The fixture will be an official capped match for Queensland and with eight non-contracted club rugby players on tour, as well some uncapped Reds squad members there is an opportunity for a handful of potential debutants on Friday night.
“They’ll remember this trip – especially this first one for some time,” added Deans.
“They’ve had one fixture already (against Kubota Spears) and the locals are very excited about this fixture coming up on Friday night.”
According to their head coach, the Wild Knights players are also looking forward to hosting Queensland in Kumagaya.
“There’ll be a little bit of anxiety but that’s part of what’s good about this relationship as it takes both outfits a little bit out of their comfort zone, and it just broadens your people.”
Deans and Thorn were at the Crusaders together when they won the 2002, 2005, 2006 and 2008 Super Rugby titles with Deans as head coach and Thorn playing at lock.
A decade later Thorn followed Deans into the coaching world as he took over the reins at the Reds in 2018.
“He’s done good things,” commented Deans on Thorn’s current tenure at Queensland.
“He’s taken a group that had talent but lacked discipline. You can see his ethic coming through in the group and he’s only just getting started really.
“He’s done what I would’ve expected of him. He’s got a lot of history in the game. He has high expectations, and he expects that out of his people as well.”
The Reds and Wild Knights will battle for the Saitama-Queensland Shield at Kumagaya Rugby Stadium in Japan on Friday 4 November at 8pm AEST.