OPOTIKI lock Tom Franklin will play rugby in Japan later this year.
The Highlanders’ veteran has signed a two-year deal with Japan Top League club Kobe Steelers and will begin with the club after the Super Rugby season.
Franklin has been on the fringe of All Black selection in recent seasons, having played for the Maori All Blacks and been part of the All Blacks training group. He said it was the right time to look at other options.
“I felt like the time was right to look elsewhere, after not getting a crack at top level last year.
“I thought it was better to explore different options. Once I had accepted that I was not up there, it was easy.”
Franklin said his grasp of the Japanese language was “not too flash” but he was excited about the move. He hoped to return to play for the Highlanders in 2019, although that was yet to be confirmed.
“The seasons are shorter and it is also a bit closer to home. Hopefully one day I’ll play in Europe, but Japan was the right choice.”
Former All Black coach Wayne Smith is director of rugby at Kobe and Franklin said he wanted to play well in Japan.
“Every team you play in you want to win. Kobe have been a top-four, mid-table team but they are wanting to get back up there.
“There is pressure, every new team you go to you want to do well.”
But before Franklin moves to Japan, he has a Super Rugby campaign to complete with the Highlanders.
The 2015 champions have just had their second bye of the season and are fourth in the New Zealand conference. But they are in seventh place overall, occupying one of the five wildcard spots.
After a solid start to the season, the Highlanders dropped games to Hurricanes and the Chiefs.
Franklin, who has played 54 times for the Highlanders, has been a mainstay of the forward pack. As well as an increase in the physicality of his game, Franklin is one of the top tacklers in the competition, his presence at set piece has also increased.
“We have a new defence coach and being more physical is something I have worked on a lot.”
Franklin was quick to dismiss talk of veteran status and said they were looking to lift in the coming weeks.
“We are unhappy with how we finished the last couple of games, we have a lot more to give out there so we will be looking to do better.”
The Highlanders host the Brumbies in Dunedin on Saturday and play the Blues in Auckland next week, ahead of the trip to South Africa.