Japan’s Rugby Captain Himeno, who Missed the World Cup Top 8 is Now Overcoming Tremendous Stress | FRIDAY DIGITAL

Japan’s Rugby Captain Himeno, who Missed the World Cup Top 8 is Now Overcoming Tremendous Stress

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Even when they had the ball, there was no space. Himeno was hampered by Argentina’s thick defense and was unable to break through as he would have liked.

The Japanese national team (ranked 12th in the world), aiming for their first ever top four finish at the Rugby World Cup in France, lost their first-round match against Argentina (ranked 9th in the world) in Nantes, losing 27-39.

The Argentinean team has a record of 1-5 against Japan, and although they have reached the last four in the World Cup twice, and defeated the past World Cup winners New Zealand and Australia last year, they have never been able to win a match against the Argentinean team, despite coming within a point of tying the game. The team was bounced back by the thick wall of the South American heroes.

Captain Kazuki Himeno (29), who has been leading the team with passion and love and has publicly declared his desire to win the World Cup, expressed his frustration after the match, saying,

“I am disappointed that we did not get the result we wanted, but I want to thank my teammates for putting in their best effort. It is thanks to my fans that I have been able to work this hard. Although we were not able to put cherry blossoms on the top of Mount Everest, we will continue to pursue our legacy, our culture, and our dream and goal of winning the World Cup. I believe that our dream and goal of winning the World Cup will be passed on to the next generation.”

At the post-match press conference, head coach (HC) Jamie Joseph, sitting next to HIMENO, stated, “The quality of the team (Japan) is very high.”

“Japan’s national team is a quality team, but we haven’t had a lot of opportunities to develop quality players.”

The COVID-19 crisis restricted Argentina’s ability to play test matches against higher-ranked nations, and while Argentina was able to resume play against New Zealand in November 2020, Japan was delayed until June 2021, when they played the British & Irish Lions. In addition to the international matches in June and November, Argentina also participated in “The Rugby Championship,” a four-nation Southern Hemisphere tournament held in July and August every year, in which they play two matches each against New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa in principle.

It was a foregone conclusion that Himeno, who shot to stardom at the last Rugby World Cup in 2019 with his “jackal” (an instant technique to take the ball away from a downed player in a tackle), would be named captain for this year’s tournament. When selecting a new captain, HC Joseph said at the end of July, just before the selection of the team members, that he wanted him to lead the team in games, and he called up HIMENO and SH Ryudai, who was named vice captain, saying that he had a lot of confidence in them.

“I want to lead the team with my passion, love, and my own style of leadership,” said HIMENO, “because my leadership is necessary for the national team and Jamie said he expects that from me.”

However, HIMENO has always been a free-spirited player rather than a captain. Of the 33 members of the current Japan team, seven are from Teikyo University, five of whom have been captains and one vice-captain, and Himeno was the only one who was not a leader during his college years. In his third year of high school, he skipped a grade and was selected as a candidate for the U20 national team, but due to an injury sustained in his first year of college at a training camp run by Eddie Jones, who was leading the national team at the time, his college career was not a complete one.

The turning point came when he joined the Toyota Verblitz (Toyota), a team in his hometown of Aichi, Japan. Toyota was led by then coach Jake White, who led South Africa to victory at the 2007 World Cup, and the world-famous general appointed Himeno as captain, an unprecedented move for a rookie.

He is a player who knows how to win championships,” White said. He can represent Japan and will definitely play in the World Cup. One of my jobs is to give him a sense of responsibility and captaincy, and to develop him into an international player,” said White.

Before joining Toyota, HIMENO himself set out to become a member of the Japan national team, which has been his dream since he was a child, and win the Top League Rookie of the Year award. He met the expectations of coach White and HC Joseph, who was in his second year at Toyota, and fulfilled both of these goals. He also studied with the Sunwolves Super Rugby team, which led to a leap forward to the World Cup in 2007.

In the midst of the frenzy of 2019, Himeno decided to return to Japan in 2021 saying , “I want to make rugby, which is my dream, an indispensable part of Japan and in terms of my personal growth, I felt it necessary to leave the comfort of Japan and play with a hunger.” Instead of playing for Toyota, he chose to challenge the Highlanders of New Zealand (NZ), who HC Joseph once led to their first Super Rugby championship. Himeno, who has been the only overseas player in the FWD team for the past four years, recalls, “I was the only one to make it to the World Cup in ’19.

“I was not able to play the way I wanted to (in the quarterfinals of the ’19 World Cup against South Africa),” he said. I became very ambitious to become stronger and stronger. I decided to go (to NZ) because I thought it would be a great advantage to play Super Rugby, a high level league, and get tougher every week.

Urayasu training camp in June. After training on the bike, HIMENO’s face contorted from the rigors of the training.

Toyota initially opposed HIMENO’s decision to go to NZ, but it was HC Joseph, who was open to the idea of having a player go overseas, who gave him the nudge.

In the fall of ’17, Himeno says he fell asleep after his first tour of Europe. He said that because of the COVID-19 crisis, there was a quarantine period, and he also had to live alone overseas for the first time, so he was homesick at first due to the differences in living environment and language.

However, HC Joseph, who lives in Otago, home of the Highlanders, encouraged him to focus on the Highlanders (and) not on the Japan team! and he supported Himeno by inviting him to his home for meals. The relationship of trust and mentor-disciple between HC Joseph and Himeno, who first invited Himeno to Japan in the fall of 2005, was fostered and solidified in NZ.

In this environment, HIMENO learned from the on/off balance and mental attitude of NZ players, and successfully overcame the adversity of his first overseas challenge, winning the Rookie of the Year award at the Super Rugby Aotearoa (contested in NZ due to the COVID-19 crisis).

Himeno recalls his challenge to NZ: “I had to overcome my fears and mentality.”

I always try to overcome my fears and build up my mentality, but it was tougher in NZ than in Japan because I was not used to it. It is the path I chose, and I struggled and struggled. For example, with swords (when making them), I was able to hit it hard, hit it hard, and get stronger. It was right on target.”

It was natural for HC Joseph to name Himeno as captain, having watched closely how he challenged himself in NZ, both for the sake of Japanese Rugby and for his own evolution. However, he was affected by a serious injury to his left thigh last season, so he did not appoint him as the captain of the national team, probably to see how he was doing, and his senior at Teikyo University, Atsushi Sakate, took over the role. The team will be able to win against Argentina for the first time in the World Cup if they can win the tournament. A win over Argentina would have made history by taking the team to the last eight of the World Cup, the first time the tournament had been played on hostile soil, but that would have to wait until the next tournament.

“We are in a life-or-death situation,” he said. “We will have to risk our lives, and we will have to perform to the point of risking our own lives. I want to live up to Jamie’s expectations (as captain) as a man, and first of all, I want to be the best player on the field and lead the team.”

As he stated before the match against Argentina, Himeno has always put into practice what he has said, such as joining Toyota (my hometown) and becoming a member of the Japan national team, which has been my dream since I was a little girl. The World Cup championship that he had talked about before this year’s tournament has not come true this time, and the challenge has fallen upon him, but how does he feel now that he is looking at the top of Mount Everest?

  • Interview and text by Kenji Saito

    Born in 1975. He is a sportswriter who covers and writes for magazines and websites, focusing on rugby and soccer. He has covered the World Cup for five consecutive years until the 2019 tournament. He covered all 57 matches of the last World Cup, when Japan was coached by Eddie Jones. His recent books include "Rugby Language Dictionary" (Seibundo Shinkosha) and "Rugby Spectator's Guide" (Kairyusha). In high school, he played as a strong tackling FB.

  • Photography Aki Nagao (1st photo) Sankei Shimbun (2nd photo)

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