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Sakaki to line up against Sydney - and Dons considering 2007 match in Japan

  • Tuesday, February 14 2006 @ 11:55 pm ACDT
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General News

Japan national team member Michito Sakaki has been named to line up for Essendon in their practise match against the Sydney Swans at North Sydney Oval this Friday. The Bombers have reportedly also recently signed two new major sponsors from the world of Japanese business and are considering a fan-base push into the Tokyo area, including Japanese language editions of their fanzine 'The Bomber' and an exhibtion match in 2007. Speaking to media outlet Sportal, Essendon coach Kevin Sheedy played down the chances of Sakaki being a regular fixture with the VFL Bendigo Bombers, although he was very positive of the progress this summer.

Sakaki will be the first player from an international league to play in the annual Bombers-Swans pre-season fixture, red tape having stopped the Dons using American scholarship players such as Dustin Jones in the North Sydney match in past years.

Kevin Sheedy, speaking to Sportal, described Sakaki as "a pretty serious young man... He is about Peter Bell's size, but his play last week in our intra-club match was as good as you will ever see. And there is no better attitude out there - his attitude towards training is very good."

Sheedy said he expected Sakaki to play at least half of Friday's match at North Sydney Oval against the reigning premiers. "He will play in the forward pocket and go on the ball - he had 12 possessions in a 50 minute (intra-club) game the other week so that is a pretty impressive effort."

Although members of the Japan AFL are still optimistic that Sakaki can play for the Essendon feeder team Bendigo Bombers this year, Sheedy says he expects his regular spot to be with leading Melbourne amateur club St Bernards (just down the road from Essendon's HQ at Windy Hill) or in the Ovens and Murray League, widely considered the best country league in Australia.

Sheedy described Sakaki's selection as "tremendous for international encouragement" and hopes other AFL clubs will broaden their recruiting range, which has already seen several players from Ireland make the successful transition into the AFL. "I am doing it also to encourage other clubs to help and work on the international scene because it is growing very quickly," he said. Sakaki's size is expected to be an impediment to his chances of playing at the top level, Sheedy saying "If he (Sakaki) was six foot two everyone would be taking notice of him, but (at his size) he will have to be as good a player as a Peter Bell or Gary Moorcroft or Tony Buhagiar (to make it) because that is the sort of size he is." Tsuyoshi Kase, the other Japanese player training with the Bombers is taller at around five foot ten, but not as advanced with his footballing skills.

Kase and Sakaki, whatever happens this season, will have a tremendous amount of experience to take back to Japan with them to benefit their home league and national team. But in addition to the onfield presence of the duo, the Dons have quietly added two new Japanese sponsors, Toyota and Japanese Airlines, joining Japanese firm Yakult who have been partners of the Bombers for around 12 months.

According to Melbourne daily newspaper The Age, the club is working on the design of pages for its website which will offer content written in Japanese and is exploring the idea of printing a run of copies of its fanzine, The Bomber, for distribution in Tokyo.

Essendon chief executive Peter Jackson told The Age that the Dons would like to stage an exhibition match in Japan in 2007, 20 years after playing Hawthorn in Yokohama, and will send its next group of potential team leaders to the country later this year. The first batch was sent in December 2004.

Jackson said, "It became clear when we went up there with our leadership group in 2004 that Japanese who had been exposed to the game were very passionate or keen about it. I think culturally they are a people who like speed, aggression and excitement in their sports and Australian football offers those things. There is also the commercial side of things. We became aware well over five years ago that we needed to spend a lot more time marketing our club in Sydney because of the transformation, the corporate transformation, which now sees 60 per cent of head offices in Australia located in Sydney.