Seungshin Lee, a Rugby Gem: “From the Bottom to the Top of the World
Interview with Kobelco Kobe Steelers Rugby League One Rookie of the Year: Youngster drops out of Teikyo University, tries overseas training, but gives it up in Corona -- Dreams of being a strong team commander told by a young gem
There is a 21-year-old rugger man who has been called both “a future representative of Japan” and “a unique newcomer.
He is Lee Seung-Shin, a member of the Kobelco Kobe Steelers (formerly Kobe Steel) of the Japan Rugby League One, a new professional rugby league established this year.
He is a standoff player who leads the Steelers’ attack with his speed, his ability to kick with a distance of over 60 meters, and his good judgment in organizing the game. In his second year with the Steelers, he has been named vice-captain, and is one of the hottest talents in rugby.
This year, I have become more relaxed in terms of my play, and I am able to think about what I have to do for the team.
It looks like smooth sailing, but Lee’s rugby career has been full of setbacks.’ In 18 years of competing against the world as a member of the Japanese high school national team, what he keenly felt was his overwhelming lack of ability.
When I was in my third year of high school, I was shocked when I played against various countries on an expedition. Wales, Ireland, and Fiji were particularly impressive. Not only were there differences in speed and physicality, but they also had a different “understanding” of rugby. They know rugby. What surprised me was their ability to read the game. In the first 10 minutes of the first and second halves, they never let the pace of the game get out of hand. They read the opponent’s difficult time period precisely, and the whole team concentrates on it and folds up. I felt there was a big difference in that kind of game instinct.
With this in mind, he entered Teikyo University, a prestigious university rugby team, and won a place in the leading team in his first year, but he could not shake off the feeling of impatience that he was “being separated from the rest of the world.
He said, “University rugby is an environment in which you can grow, but I gradually became more and more determined that I had to go out into the world and improve my skills. Therefore, at the end of his freshman year, he decided to study abroad in New Zealand, the home of rugby. I had a dispute with my parents. Especially my father said, ‘Your life is longer after you retire. I definitely want you to go to university. But I didn’t want to give up studying abroad in order to become stronger. I forcefully persuaded them by saying, ‘Rugby is a part of my life. In the spring of 2008, I resigned from the university.”
Although he was determined to go abroad to train as a warrior, another setback awaited him here. But even here there was a setback: a coronavirus pandemic. His study abroad program came to an abrupt halt due to restrictions on entry into Japan. He had dropped out of university and had no environment in which to play rugby. He had hit rock bottom.
I went home to my parents’ house in Kobe, trained on the playground equipment at a nearby park, ran along the beach, and quietly worked hard at my training. The hardest part was that I spent a lot of time alone. I couldn’t communicate with anyone, and many times I thought about quitting rugby. I guess I was like that for about six months. I don’t want to go back to those days.”
The man who offered a helping hand was Masayuki Fukumoto, former coach of the rugby school he attended as a child and team director of the Steelers. Upon learning of his student’s current situation, Mr. Fukumoto allowed him to use the field after team practice.
He was impressed with my ability while I was allowed to use the practice field, and I officially joined the team in ’20. At first, I didn’t have a millimeter of confidence that I could make it on a prestigious team, and I was nervous just entering the locker room (laughs). (Laughs) The speed and strength of the team were different, and every day I felt the difficulty of the rugby that “Kobe” was trying to play, so much so that I wondered if I was good enough to be on this team. Even so, it was a series of stimulating and fulfilling days.
Through friendly competition with former New Zealand national team member Aaron Cruden (33) and current Japan national team members Isirelli Nakajima (32) and Ryohei Yamanaka (33), he has grown into an indispensable mainstay of the team. Finally, we asked him about his current dream.
I watched the World Cup in Japan in 2007 and admired the success of the national team. I definitely want to be there and compete with the best teams in the world. I have no regrets about my decision so far. I will become a top professional in the shortest possible time.
He is 21 years old and has nothing but room to grow. Today, he is working hard to challenge the world.
From the March 4, 2022 issue of FRIDAY
Interview and text： Myung-Woo Kim
Photo： Courtesy of Kobelco Kobe Steelers