LAKE Macquarie have been dealt a blow in the countdown to the Newcastle and Hunter Rugby Union season after learning that star import Mark Burman has signed to play professionally in Japan.
The former Waikato Chiefs lock and All Black squad member agreed this week to a one-year deal with Tokyo Gas, who play in the Japanese second division.
Burman said yesterday that he was disappointed to leave Lake Macquarie but wanted to resume his professional career "while I've still got a few years left in me".
"I came here to Newcastle to have a break from the professional side of things, because I'd been doing that for eight years," he told the Newcastle Herald.
"Being at Lake Macquarie, the boys play because they love the sport and I suppose that was a real driver for me in realising the opportunity I've got, in terms of playing abroad and making money out of it and doing it for a lifestyle, is well worth pursuing. It's not going to be there forever. So my teammates here, I probably owe them . . . the fun I had with those boys probably resparked my love of the game, so why not continue playing professionally while I can?"
Burman played four seasons for Waikato (2005-09) and arrived at Lake Macquarie after three years with Mogliano in the Italian Super 10.
The towering 28-year-old said he would be interested in returning to Lake Macquarie after his stint in Japan.
"My wife [Janelle] loves this place and I enjoy it, so I've got no doubts we'll be back, if not in the near future then at some point, for sure," he said.
Burman said he studied Japanese at high school and was hopeful he would have a "basic" ability to communicate within his new set up.
His contract with Tokyo Gas starts on May 1, but he will not risk injury by playing for Lake Macquarie in the meantime.
Meanwhile, Easts will return to the field today when they take on a combined Wanderers-Hamilton side at No. 2 Sportsground.
It will be the first time Easts have played since they were ejected from the competition in 2009, prompting a long but successful legal appeal.
Easts president Damien Johnston said his club would field teams in first, second and third grades and under-18s today.
"This will give us a better idea of where we're at," he said. "Obviously we'll get better as the year progresses, but I'm confident we'll be competitive from the word go."
Waratahs-Reds preview, Page 61