© James Meehan/INPHO Mark Egan in action for Terenure in 1997.
Irish Abroad

'I was certainly quite a rare item in Japan at 6ft 5ins with red hair'

Irishman Mark Egan had great success as a rugby player in Japan and now works for the JRFU.

BEAUDEN BARRETT, Michael Hooper, Brodie Retallick, Pieter-Steph du Toit, the list goes on. Japan’s Top League competition has been attracting the biggest names in rugby in recent years.

But rewind to the 1990s and one of its first foreign stars was an Irishman.

Mark Egan came through the ranks of Terenure College and was close to playing for Ireland at one stage. He’s also something of a legend at the Kobelco Steelers club in the Japanese port city of Kobe.

Egan helped the club to four consecutive national titles, worked for the Kobe Steel company – which owns the rugby club – lived through the devastating Great Hanshin Earthquake, and was even honoured with a Commendation from Japan’s Foreign Minister in 2019.

Now, after spending almost 20 years with World Rugby, Egan works as a strategic advisor to the Japan Rugby Football Union. His role involves helping Japan to secure fixtures like today’s clash with Ireland in Dublin and helping to drive the Japanese game forward on the global stage.

“I’ve come full circle with my Japan experience,” says Egan.

His first taste of life in Japan came on an Irish Universities tour back in 1987 when he was in Trinity College, Dublin. Coached by Roly Meates, the touring team were good enough to beat Japan’s senior national team in front of 30,000 people in Tokyo.

“I was really intrigued by Japan,” recalls Egan. “No one we knew around that time had been to Asia so it was a great experience.”

His business studies course at Trinity led on to a degree in Economics and Politics over in Oxford, with whom Egan enjoyed another tour to Japan in 1988. A talented number eight, he was good enough to captain Oxford to Varsity Match success in 1990 when they went on a pre-season tour to Japan and Taiwan. You get the feeling this was all meant to be.

Oxford had a link with the Kobe Steelers, who were the Japanese national champions, and beat them in their last game on tour. Egan made a big impression.

“There was a function after the game and I was told the Kobe president, Mr Kametaka, wanted to speak to me,” he explains. “I had to go over and sit down with him and he told me he wanted me to come and play rugby for his team and work with this company.

“At that time, I was going to play with London Irish and had a job lined up with Unilever in London. My now-wife, Melanie, we were about to get engaged and she was working in London, so I wasn’t even thinking about Japan.”

So Egan initially dismissed the idea and had some ambition of forcing his way into Ireland contention, but the Steelers were persistent. They flew the couple out to Japan to have a look around the club and the city of Kobe.

They offered Melanie a job too and, with student loans still to be paid off, the new adventure was impossible to turn down. The Egans made the move to Japan, planning to be home in two years, but ended up staying for five.

Picking up the Japanese language was very difficult and meant a tough settling-in period and though Kobe had a small international community, Egan’s new life was among natives in the rugby club and company.

“When you went outside Kobe, you were quite a rare item and certainly when I was 6ft 5ins with red hair wandering around,” he says. “The word for foreigner is gaijin, which is ‘outside person’ in Japanese so you certainly felt like that.

“But the Japanese people are so friendly. They can be a little bit shy and nervous about speaking English but once you know how to speak a little Japanese and you respect their culture, they’re so welcoming and friendly.”

mark-egan Bryan Keane / INPHO Egan pictured in 2019. Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

Egan was making a big impact on the pitch too. With plenty of back row options at the club, he played the majority of his rugby in the second row but loved the open, attacking style of rugby.

The Steelers had a brilliant team including the likes of the late, great Seiji Hirao, who is remembered as ‘Mr Rugby.’ Egan was part of the title-winning efforts from 1991 through to 1994, helping the club to extend their overall winning streak to seven consecutive years.

When the Steelers toured places like Australia, they beat the best club sides there and Egan says the standard was higher than the AIL back home. The big Irish fella in Kobe’s second row was certainly a unique proposition.

“When I arrived, there were very few foreign players and I was actually the only European player in the league at the time.”

Rugby wasn’t professional back then and the league was still called the Japan Company Rugby Championship. Egan was employed by Kobe Steel, working 9 to 5 in the company’s international business division and then heading to rugby training in the evenings.

One of the perks was that those tours to Australia or pre-season camps in the north of Japan were part of the job.

“That was considered a business trip!” says Egan.

His memories of that time in Japan are nearly all positive but Egan will never forget 17 January, 1995 when the 6.9 magnitude Great Hanshin Earthquake struck, killing 4,600 in Kobe alone and razing much of the city.

Egan had only been home a few hours following a night out celebrating the Steelers’ latest triumph when he and his wife were jolted awake at 5.47am.

“It lasted about 20 seconds and we lived beside a train line so I thought a train had derailed and crashed into the apartment block,” he remembers.

“It was ferocious. There were people killed on our street and buildings collapsed. We were lucky we were in a solid concrete four-storey building and it stayed standing. The inside of our apartment was totally smashed up, every bit of crockery we had, the fridge was on the other side of the room, the TV was smashed up.”

Initially, help was slow to arrive from other cities, Egan explains. Expressways had collapsed, roads were blocked, communications were down, and the rest of Japan didn’t seem to realise the extent of the devastation.

But the rebuild was soon underway and Egan was stunned by how swiftly Kobe recovered.

“It’s amazing how stoic the Japanese people are,” he says. “They’re used to natural disasters and then the devastation of World War II is not far off in their memories.”

Earthquakes / YouTube

Kobe’s run of titles came to an end and, with their daughter Mika having been born in Japan, the Egans made the decision to return to Ireland in 1996, when Mark re-joined Terenure.

He was in contention for Ireland’s infamous development tour of New Zealand and Samoa under Brian Ashton but was suffering with a recurring knee problem and picked up a fresh injury in the final game of the AIL season against Shannon.

Egan attempted to play on into the ’97/98 campaign but his knee went again in the opening game of the season and that was it for his rugby career.

He had taken on consultancy work with IDA [Industrial Development Agency] Ireland and, once again, an opportunity opened up in Japan. They offered him a job as a marketing executive in Tokyo and so, just nine months after returning home, the Egans headed back to Japan.

Melanie worked in The British School in Tokyo this time around and they enjoyed two-and-a-half years in the capital city before Mark’s job led them on to New York and finally a return home to Dublin for good in 2002.

Egan had always fancied working with World Rugby – still the IRB back then – and the game’s governing body just happened to be looking for someone to bring its World Sevens Series to the next level.

“Timing is everything in life,” says Egan, who stayed with World Rugby for 19 years.

Having driven the progress of sevens rugby, Egan’s role with the governing body morphed into Head of Competitions and Performance, with much of his work focused on helping developing nations like Japan, who he pushed as World Cup hosts in 2019.

With Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown driving the actual rugby side of things, the Brave Blossoms were able to rock their home World Cup.

“To have such a successful World Cup on the pitch was brilliant but also off the pitch – it was the most successful Rugby World Cup ever commercially,” says Egan.

Rather fittingly, his time with World Rugby concluded in Tokyo earlier this year as he oversaw the rugby sevens at the Olympic Games.

Given the deep ties, it’s no surprise that Egan was awarded his Commendation from Japan’s Foreign Minister in 2019, which came for his “outstanding contribution to the promotion of mutual understanding through sports between Japan and Ireland.”

Egan brushes it off in humble fashion but he continues to contribute to the betterment of Japanese rugby now.

Having left World Rugby, he took on his current role as a strategic advisor to the JRFU.

As the Top League morphs into ‘League One’ next year with a new format and lots of other changes, Egan stresses the need for pathways in the country to produce homegrown players and he continues to work towards Japan being included in the Rugby Championship as they look for more regular top-level rugby.

japan-celebrate-after-the-whistle Jayne Russell / INPHO Egan has worked hard to drive Japan's progress at the top level. Jayne Russell / INPHO / INPHO

Egan initially had mixed feelings in 2019 when Japan shocked Ireland at the World Cup but was “very, very happy at the end of the day” and will be urging them on again today as the teams meet in Dublin.

“I want Japan to do well,” says Egan. “We have only had one home game since the World Cup. This is the second time in six months that we’ve had to come to Europe to play international rugby.

“It will be a travesty if the game doesn’t find a solution for Japan and Fiji, in particular, to be in regular international competition where we’re getting a minimum of 10 Test matches a year that the Six Nations and SANZAAR unions are getting.

“There’s an opportunity commercially for the whole of the game to benefit from Japan being in that framework.

Egan has given a fair chunk of his life to Japanese rugby but he’s not done yet.

Bernard Jackman, Murray Kinsella, and Gavan Casey look ahead to Ireland-Japan with the help of Japanese rugby expert Rich Freeman, while the lads also assess ‘Tier Two’ rugby two years out from the World Cup:

The42 Rugby Weekly / SoundCloud

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