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Japanese players making their marks in Wellington club rugby

Swindale Shield | 30 March 2016 | Steven White

Japanese players making their marks in Wellington club rugby

Above: Frontrowers Kenta Tsujii from the Ricoh Rams and currently with Northern United and Taku Takashima from the Sanix Blues and currently with poneke are part of a group of Japanese players in Wellington club rugby for the next three months. Photo by Chainsaw Photos

The several Japanese players’ names spread throughout several Swindale Shield teamlists last Friday provided a highlight to the opening round of Wellington club rugby.

There are currently seven Japanese players from Top League and University teams in Wellington brought here by Tawa Rugby Club coach Katsu Takeuchi and training with the Wellington Academy - and another seven arriving next week.

There are also two players from the Sanix Blues playing for Poneke, who are in Wellington through former Poneke midfielder and current Sanix captain Eito Tamura.

Soon there could be the equivalent of a full team of Japanese players lining up each round in Wellington club rugby, adding positively to the dynamics of the competition.

Additionally, the WRRA hope to welcome a group of Japanese high performance referees back to Wellington this year. Recent Japan-Wellington exchange referees Aki Aso (assistant referee) and Shuhei Kubo (referee) are both now performing in Super Rugby, with some other recent visitors are fulfilling sideline management roles.

Coach Takeuchi explained that the challenge for the players coming here from Japan is off the field as much as on it.

“All the players have to adapt to New Zealand culture,” he said.

“They are all living with local families and club members and they can also improve their English and be introduced to the New Zealand way of life. There is much that is different, for example the food culture.”

“The players train every morning with the WRFU Academy players and also do individual sessions. Sometimes I do training sessions with them.”


Takeuchi has been in New Zealand for 24 years. He came here after he finished high school not knowing any English. He played as a halfback for Northern United for a decade before staying involved in the game at a coaching level.

“I have had a great experience in New Zealand through rugby and I want to see these Japanese players have the same experience as I did. It’s easy to make friends through rugby – the language barrier doesn’t really matter.”

Last Friday, most of the following seven players who are already here and training with the WRFU played in the opening round of Wellington club rugby:

  • Ryota Kobayashi / Honda Heat Top League / flanker / Petone
  • Yuta Haruyama / Toyota Top League / midfielder / Avalon
  • Kenta Tsujii / Ricoh Rams Top League / prop / Northern United
  • Daisuke Musha / Ricoh Rams Top League / flanker / Johnsonville 
  • Kazuki Yamada / Ritsumeikan University /centre / Petone
  • Kohki Takagi / Ritsumeikan University / halfback / HOBM
  • Kenta Yamaji /Honda Heat Top League / halfback / Tawa

Additionally, the two Sanix Blues Top League players at Poneke are prop Taku Takashima and fullback Akira Natomi. Takashima is in his second year at Poneke, and both were introduced to the club by former player Eito Tamura.

Tamura moved to New Zealand when he was 15 and attended Napier Boys’ High School before moving down to Wellington.

He played some 90 matches for in Poneke as a midfielder between 2006-11 and played in the 2010 Jubilee Cup final against Northern United.

In 2011 he gained a Sanix Blues contract, where he has been playing ever since and he has been their captain for the past two seasons - having also switched positions to flanker.

Tamura said when he was playing in Wellington several years ago he was a lone Japanese player in the Swindale Shield and Jubilee Cup, but explained the benefits to Japanese players of them now coming here and experiencing New Zealand rugby.

“Back home, all these players are playing for various teams spread throughout Japan, but over here they all come together in the same environment. They train together and help each other out and they’ll all head home much better for the experience and take what they’ve learned with them.”

Tamura said the style of rugby played here is a key difference. “Japanese rugby is more structured, they train a lot, but nothing beats a hard game in New Zealand. “At Sanix we often train with the national team. Last Friday Taku played for Poneke against Wainuiomata in their Swindale Shield opener [at loosehead prop] and I was on the sideline. In a break in play he noted to me how hard the game was being played.”

Rugby is riding a wave of popularity in Japan said Tamura, who was in Japan during last year’s Rugby World Cup.

“After the win against South Africa at last year’s Rugby World Cup, it’s gone mad. Karne Hesketh, who went to Napier Boys’ High School and also at the Sanix Blues, is now a national hero.”

Tamura is back in Wellington until the end of April, in a non-playing capacity.

Saturday Rugby Club radio commentator Ken Laban has been calling Japanese rugby - the Japanese national team in the Pacific Nations/RWC 2011, Japan Top League and now the Sunwolves - over the past decade.

“Japanese rugby represents one of the game’s great global footprints with its population and economy,” said Laban. “I have seen their growth and development, particularly at set-piece, and especially over the last three years.

“They have 16 teams in their own Japanese Top League professional competition, which includes some of the world’s best coaches and players. Last year they won three Pool games at RWC and their own Super Rugby team has joined Super Rugby.

“In addition they get bigger crowds at university and high school rugby than they do at professional games. Crowds in excess of 20,000 attend those games and the local broadcaster J Sports covers over 300 games a year.

“They are a country and a game that is seriously on the move.”

Laban also pointed to the number of well-known international players and coaches from the three SANZAR countries that have been involved in Japanese rugby and have helped shape and develop their game to where it is today.

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