When Greig Laidlaw was a wee lad running around Jedburgh in the Scottish Borders he would tell anyone who would listen about where his rugby career was headed. "When I grow up I'm gonna play rugby for the NTT Shining Arcs!" he would declare. "In Japan!"
We may have that slightly askew. It's more likely Laidlaw's ambition was to be a star first with Jed-Forest and then Scotland. And the fact that he saw service across 245 first class games with Edinburgh, Gloucester and Clermont in between the two was no harm. Pile on 75 caps for his country and that's more than the average man could manage in his wildest dreams. He deserves a spin in Japan.
Laidlaw looked happy enough last week to be making the announcement. So did Beauden Barrett who will be squeezing Suntory Sungoliath into his match plan between finishing the Super Rugby season in Auckland and picking up his All Black career again next year. He will be able to catch up with Brodie Retallick, and a growing band of Europeans.
A week may not pass these days without another kite being flown about the global season and how it will be financed, but the one near certainty is that yet another high profile player will be packing his bags for Japan.
Cashel man Paddy Butler swapped Pau in France for Yamaha Jubilo in Japan earlier this year. Photo: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE
It is remarkable that while the rest of the world is busy tightening belts, straitened by Covid, Japan is stuffing its face and expanding its waistline. Wondering about what draws players to that country is a throwback to asking the then 59-year-old former supermodel Jerry Hall what first attracted her to the 86-year-old billionaire Rupert Murdoch. So how can Japan keep reeling off fat salaries for short term contracts? Is this a glamourous little sideshow or does it have any merit? And how is it that Ireland - a country that spews out a decent number of high quality players into rugby's stratosphere - hardly features?
Japan is unique in the world game, a sport driven essentially by big business for which the team becomes part of the brand. So it's the company employees who support the team, not the folks who happen to live in the neighbourhood. And the players are employees as well. In times of economic strife the company can cut wages or jobs or whatever they want, without the influence of the outside forces that affect the rest of the professional sports world. And clearly they are slow to chop off the hand that feeds their ego: the success of the company team.
So what happens when the game genuinely moves onto a professional footing in two years' time? As it stands the shape of that new pro game is shifting. Originally it was supposed to be 12 new franchises based in the World Cup cities. Each is expected to have a stadium with a minimum 15,000 capacity. But by the time it's actually up and running we might find that the companies have not given up their control of the product, and instead it looks like a different shade of what they have now.
"I was chatting to my Japanese teacher about this," says Cashel man Paddy Butler, who swapped Pau in France for Yamaha Jubilo in Japan earlier this year. "For the average Japanese person the focus is to get into one of those companies, to work for one of those big outfits in the Top League because they know that's a job for life. That's the way their mindset is. And if you leave you have no chance of ever getting back in - that's the way the loyalty thing is with them.
"So I wonder what's going to happen with that move to professionalise it (the game)? Will players be turning down the company job in favour of becoming a professional player and how that will correlate? It's a completely different culture between the two."
Not for the first time, World Rugby needs Japan to deliver. In summer 2017 when Ireland toured there, we were struck not just by the lack of readiness on the ground for the 2019 World Cup but the mindset that went with it. Rugby in Japan is so hierarchical and set in its ways it makes the IRFU of the mid-1990s - the lads faced with the overnight advent of a professional game - look like wild things with revolution on their minds and adventure in their hearts.
So when World Rugby were recently busy telling us of the surge in interest in the game in Asia on the back of the World Cup, we were a little dubious. Not about the numbers tuning in to the event itself, rather the numbers who will have a 'rashers' what's going on in the game within a couple of seasons of the show leaving town.
The Rugby World Cup last autumn created a false picture of the game in Japan. Even World Cups in long established countries will do that. This time around however everyone was struck by the stoicism of a nation whose observance of 'the show must go on' motto was unique. World Rugby went from sweating buckets over the carnage caused by Typhoon Hagibis to singing and dancing over the quality of the run-in to the finish - which was first class. Now they need some follow-on. They need the game in that country to look like it can catch on.
The flow of talent from the Northern Hemisphere might help. Hadleigh Parkes from Wales, England's Freddie Burns and George Kruis, are all joining Laidlaw. Previously the fact that Japan's financial year kicked off on April 1 was a problem in contracting players from the Northern Hemisphere. The company teams needed players on site by then but contracts on this side of the equator ran beyond that date. Japan seemingly is loosening up on that. Now they need the locals to get on board.
"With our team there's only seven or eight professional Japanese players, but the club asked a few more and a lot turned them down because they felt that if they left (the company) they wouldn't get back in," Butler says. "It could be a weird dynamic with that. Soccer here is professional and they don't work in companies so maybe it will be ok, but I know the rugby players have a very strong relationship with the company. Your main objective from university is to get into one of these companies. And that's it, sorted."
But is the playing experience useful for those who are stopping a while before moving back to bigger leagues? Like Munster's new boys Damian de Allende and RG Snyman?
Dave Dillon, coach at champion club Kobelco Steelers, sounds like he could be Irish, played a bit of club rugby for Armagh and Blackrock and taught PE in St Michael's in Dublin. Like a great big chunk of the world's rugby coaching and playing fraternity, he's a Kiwi. He maintains the J League is not a sleepover.
"Both of those boys made a big impact here and I'd say they'll be the better for it going to Munster," he says. "I think it depends on the individual. I'd like to think we play a fast brand of rugby but it's physical in Japan. And it's a good standard. A lot of people seem to think rugby here is a pretty new sport but in Kobe they've been playing it for 95 years. It was an outlet for the steel workers and the guys have a very strong bond with the company."
Dillon's vision for the future of the new professional regime sounds like it won't move too far away from the existing base of the business and the team being joined at the hip. And you'd expect that will have an influence on the influx of players who might not be marquee names.
"That will be interesting," Dillon says. "On the back of the World Cup the players that are coming over are well established internationals and it just happens that they are from the Northern Hemisphere but how does that look moving forward? Normally there's a big Southern Hemisphere influence in Japan.
"I guess with Covid-19 and how the global calendar looks, and what competitions are in what spaces - that will have an influence.
"But if you look at Greig Laidlaw, he's not just a quality player but, knowing him, he's a good man and he'll have a real ability to lead. Recruitment is above my pay scale but we have a good set up here and in any organisation it's about many heads getting together and making the right decision."
The reality is that largely you stick to what you know. So if Japan has been dominated by coaches from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa then the imports will be coming from there as well.
"I think as a coaching group you want to have affiliation or you want to really know the person that's coming in. Having worked with them previously is a bonus. You've got to be able to play footy or there's no point coming in, but then it's about: 'Are you a good man and will you add value off the field as well?' And will they buy into the idea that it's a company team and there's a strong history. We're really big on those sort of things. So would we look at someone from the Northern Hemisphere? Yes we'd look at it, but you'd want some affiliation with who's coming in."
If World Rugby are going to see a vibrant pro game take off in Japan then it looks like being resourced closer to home.
The trickle from this end of the world, being led by Laidlaw, might not be a flood.