‘I’m not stupid’ – ex-England youth star saw the writing on the wall and is open to representing Japan

Alex Spink
Images of Fin Smith and James Grayson.

James Grayson adresses his international future and opens up on his Premiership exit.

He might have been the England fly-half calling the shots for Northampton Saints against Munster in the Investec Champions Cup this Sunday.

Instead, while Fin Smith spearheads the Premiership leaders’ attack at Franklin’s Gardens, James Grayson will find himself 6,000 miles from home plying his trade an hour’s drive south of Tokyo.

The 25-year-old son of Rugby World Cup winner Paul lives alone in a country he had never previously visited and talks about having to become “relatively comfortable with isolation”. His girlfriend is back home, and he spent Christmas with the family of a teammate.

Yet this is no sob story. Far from it.

Testing himself

Like Real Madrid footballer Jude Bellingham, Grayson is part of a generation of English sports stars happy to build their reputation from afar.

“Ultimately, my decision was driven by the opportunity to play regular first-team football,” he says. “In a challenging league, for a good club.

“That’s why I’ve come to Japan. To be part of a league that has Richie Mo’unga, Cheslin Kolbe, Aaron Smith, Beauden Barrett, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Ardie Savea…

“Week in week out I’m getting to play with and against some of the greatest players in our game, to test myself, see where I’m at. I’ve made the jump and I’m loving it.”

Grayson plays for Sagamihara rugby club, known as the Mitsubishi DynaBoars in Japan’s League One.

He left his boyhood club when it became clear Smith was Saints‘ preference to succeed Dan Biggar at fly-half and flew halfway around the world for a one-year contract.

“I could see how it was playing out at Northampton,” says the former England under-20s fly-half. “I’m not stupid.

“In rugby you have to be self-aware. Northampton were going down a different path with Fin and he’s doing really well for them. I had to take the initiative. It was time for me to move on and go and find my rugby elsewhere. This is a brilliant opportunity for me.”

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International allegiance

What many would consider a gamble he saw as a golden shot and, after steering DynaBoars to their best-ever league start, has been rewarded with a new two-year deal.

He is learning the language and is so committed to the move that he is giving serious thought to qualifying through residency for the Japan national team, currently coached by Eddie Jones.

“There’s always potentially that option to one day play for the Cherry Blossoms,” Grayson says.

“You never know, I might be back in the UK in a couple of years’ time playing really well and that [England] door might be open. I’m never going to shut hope on international rugby. It’s every kids’ dream to play for their country.

“But I have looked at becoming Japanese qualified, as a lot of the foreign boys have.

“I’m going to take it step by step, get through the rest of the season, keep trying to perform for the DynaBoars and see where we’re sat come next year.”

Those steps began with a conversation with his dad, who kicked Northampton to European Cup glory in 2000 and scored 400 points in 32 appearances for England between 1995 and 2004.

“He’s always been a good sounding board for me and always will be,” says James. “He said it [the Japan move] felt like a no-brainer. An opportunity to experience a new culture, a new lifestyle, to go play for a different club and experience a different type of rugby.”

Absence of negativity

Listen to Savea, New Zealand’s world-renowned number eight, and the appeal of Japan exceeds the bumper salaries available to the elite.

Not only does the Kobe Steelers’ star credit it with revitalising him following last autumn’s World Cup, he says playing in a new environment has refreshed his whole outlook on the game.

If that sounds like a persuasive argument for the likes of New Zealand and England lifting their ban on selecting players who choose to head overseas then he is happy for it to be seen as such.

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“There’s a country that has proven that it works and helps them, and that’s South Africa,” says the 30-year-old Kiwi. “The majority of their team plays here [in Japan], and they come together and win the World Cup.

“I don’t think it’s going to change drastically but if there’s one thing I’m thinking, it is something that needs to evolve and grow in this space, and this area.

“I know it won’t change overnight, but it needs to change.”

Savea says the absence of negativity from fans towards Japanese rugby is what he finds most refreshing – and Grayson would not disagree.

“The Japanese people absolutely love the rugby,” he says. “No-one’s slagged me off, at least not yet! It’s a very respectful culture.

“We lost a couple of weeks ago. The opposition fans clapped us and our fans clapped the opposition. You bow after every game, there’s no aggro.”

No regrets

But for suffering a stress fracture of his foot at much the same time Worcester went bust, bringing forward Smith’s move to the east midlands, Grayson might have had the keys to number 10 at Saints.

Living with regrets, however, is not his thing.

“I always try to move on,” he says. “I have no bitterness towards Fin. I’m pleased he’s doing well and taking his opportunities. It’s exciting to see him getting capped with England and seeing what he can do on the international stage.

“He came into Northampton fractionally earlier than originally planned, with Worcester (going under), which maybe meant I didn’t quite get the crack I was waiting for when Dan moved on.

“But rugby, like life, is not necessarily fair. It didn’t work out the way I planned it in my head but that’s life.

“I’ve now got a great opportunity here. I’m doing things I’d never have done had it gone the other way.”

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