Why the Premier 15s has become the leading domestic league for overseas players

·4-min read
Worcester Warriors duo Minori Yamamoto and Jo Brown. - Andrew Fox
Worcester Warriors duo Minori Yamamoto and Jo Brown. - Andrew Fox

Minori Yamamoto has her answer ready when asked why she dropped everything in her native Japan to join England’s Premier 15s. “I came here to be a better rugby player,” she says, reading a pre-prepared response over a video call because she does not trust her basic command of English. “In Japan, the 15s season isn’t that long, and I need high level rugby.”

The Worcester Warriors fly-half is one of three Japanese women now playing in England’s top flight, which has become a hotbed of foreign talent as players seek valuable exposure to high-quality rugby ahead of next year's World Cup. Overseas players from Europe have more than doubled in the league this season, while the number of non-Europeans has skyrocketed by more than 60 per cent.

Yamamoto, a seasoned sevens specialist with a raft of international XVs caps, claims the league’s competitiveness is a hallmark of the Premier 15s which is unparalleled to anywhere else in the world. “This level of rugby is so high, the contact level is so good,” says Yamamoto, who played just one match for her club in Japan last year because of Covid restrictions.

Her journey as the first Japanese player at Worcester Warriors - male or female - has so far been one of self-fulfillment. The 24-year-old has formed a fierce friendship with her team-mate Jo Brown, who has helped her navigate the language barrier - no mean feat when you’re a playmaking fly-half in a sport where communication is paramount.

“Sometimes my English confuses them,” says Yamamoto, alluding to her team-mates who rely on gestures on the pitch and translation apps off it. Having Brown as a housemate has also come in handy. “We watch films with subtitles together - the other day I watched The Holiday,” smiles Yamamoto, who says her discovery of mashed potatoes has been an unlikely highlight.

Brown, who has enjoyed stints at Firwood Waterloo, DMP Sharks and Loughborough Lightning, can speak to the benefits of playing within an internationally diverse team - aside from being taught how to make sushi and a fine teriyaki sauce. Not so long ago, Worcester was a side synonymous with university students but nowadays, counts Americans and Canadians among its ranks. It is a pattern mirrored across the Premier 15s, which is now home to Spanish, Dutch, Swedish and Italian players, among other nationalities.

“A few years ago, Scottish and a couple of Canadians was probably about the most international it got,” reports Brown. “The different ways of playing, the different shapes and sizes that are now playing in the league really increases the opportunities to change playing styles. Those like Minori have added a new freshness.”

Worcester Warriors women rugby duo Jo Brown and Minori Yamamoto. - Andrew Fox
Worcester Warriors women rugby duo Jo Brown and Minori Yamamoto. - Andrew Fox

While Yamamoto is now able to call herself a full-time rugby player, there are plenty of caveats. For starters, she is self-funding her rugby life with the help of several sponsors back in Japan, although even being professional with a small ‘p’ has brought its own surprises.

While recently shopping in her local Sainsbury's in Worcester, Yamamoto crossed paths with a businessman from Mazak, a Japanese machine tool building company which has manufacturing plants in the UK. The pair struck up a conversation about her rugby and he became so impressed by her career that he decided to come on board as her player sponsor. In a shining example of how English rugby clubs can tap into the marketability of female athletes, Worcester are now in the process of partnering with Mazak as one of their own official sponsors.

On the pitch, Brown has identified a particular asset of Yamamoto’s game which she has honed since joining the English league. “She’s had to really develop her chop tackle, which has become a standout part of her game,” she says. “Her defence is so strong and she hits way above her weight, which is impressive given that she’s had to change from being one of the biggest [players, in Japan] who uses her size to manipulate people in defence, to being one of the smallest on the team.”

Further afield, the impact that overseas players like Yamamoto are having cannot be understated. In Japan, which has become a stronghold for sevens rugby because of the recent focus on the Tokyo Olympics, the path she is blazing feels significant. “Having someone like Mino going overseas to play 15s is absolute gold for us in terms of role modelling for the high school and university girls in Japan,” says Lesley McKenzie, the head coach of Japan’s women’s team. “I hope these girls can help accelerate our programme to a point where eventually, there’s a top women’s league in Japan.”

But could her Japanese maestro be tempted to stay in the English game after next year’s World Cup? “I really hope so,” says Yamamoto, “because I’m really loving my time at Worcester.”

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