A year and a half later, Rugby World Cup star Naoto Saito talks about his confidence and response
Naoto Saito is expected to play for Japan’s national rugby team at the 2023 World Cup in France. He is currently a member of the Tokyo Suntory Coralias and is in the midst of a battle for the top spot in Division One of the domestic league. In the same position is Ryudai, who represented Japan at the 2019 Rugby World Cup, but despite being in his second year with the club, he has also been assigned as a game captain for the Sangorias and has started four of the eight League One matches. Still, Saito is conflicted. After the national team’s tour last year, he received some advice from the leadership. He has been asking himself the same question over and over again, taking the message into his mind, body, and soul.
The 24-year-old captain of Toin Gakuen and Waseda University. As the starting point of the attack, he was respected for his athleticism as a scrum half, his passing accuracy, his quick tempo, and above all, his diligent attitude that never missed detention practice.
His team, Coral Goliath, boasts one of the best player lineups in Japan. The same position as Saito is occupied by Ryudai, a member of Japan’s national team, so it is not easy to become a regular on the student scene.
The promising Saito has been a part of the leadership team of Sangorias since 2020, his first year in the club. In addition, in the first season of League One, which began in 2022, he was appointed game captain in the absence of captain Akito Nakamura, who is also the vice captain of the Japan national team.
Nevertheless, when the team is at full strength, he is in a position to compete with Nagare for the starting “No. 9” position.
This structure is no different in the Japan national team, where he played for the first time last season. Saito, who had supported a thrilling attack by showing his strengths when he played in games, did not get a single opportunity to be the starter on the fall tour when Nagare returned to the team, as he had in the spring.
He said, “I found myself worrying about those around me.”
How can we gain the trust of the leaders? Assistant coach Tony Brown, who is in charge of the attack, seemed to be consistent in his observations.
During the tour when he was looking for an opportunity to play, and after the post-tour review, Saito was constantly told by Brownie, a.k.a. Brownie.
Be yourself. You don’t have to be anyone else. You are you. Show your strengths and play with confidence.
Since high school, Saito has kept his own rugby notebook. For weekend matches, he writes down various events that come to mind, both physically and mentally, early in the week.
Each day, he whittles down the contents of the notebook until “by about the middle of the week, when I see that short word, I want something to do to pop into my head,” he says. On the day of the match, he writes the “word” on the back of his hand with a magic marker.
He then translates the vague sensation into his own concise words. Because of this habit, he was able to dig into Brown’s words appropriately.
He said, “You can’t drive a team unless you can play with confidence. When he said that, I knew there was no doubt in my mind. To begin with, I started thinking about what it would be like to be a player who doesn’t believe in himself. I thought, “How can a player who has insecurity about himself lead the team?”
What would my peers around me think if I were anxious about this position at the scrum half position leading the attack? How would I feel if my team had a leader who was playing with trepidation…? While searching for a way to be in the mind of an athlete, he gradually established his own method to “have confidence”.
He found a way to be “confident” by discovering and believing in his “self” which is not similar to anyone else’s.
I used to be so concerned about my surroundings, but after Brownie told me that, I started to think more about what my strengths are,” he says. I feel that I play better when I can play to the best of my ability based on the team’s rules. This season (after 2022), I am trying to play with my own personality.
What he set out to do was to sort out his current “sense of self. After confronting his “notebook,” he reaffirmed that his true essence is “tempo.
The ability to create a fast tempo. I think this is something that only I can do. Other than that, I think that my strength lies in my sense of smell, which allows me to show my face at critical junctures in both offense and defense. And then there is the run. （I still need to work on my judgment of how to set up (from the side of the contact point), but I don’t think I’m bad at the run itself.”
I headed to the bookstore and flipped through the pages.
He added, “You can have as many strengths as you want,” and during the League One season, he promotes a variety of moves, from kicking to split space from his own team, to finishing in support of a teammate who has broken away. In this area, too, he intends to be bold and show “his own style.
I think to myself, “When I am not able to do what I can do with focus in practice because I hesitate to do it on the field, it will not be subject to review (and will not be a source of reflection).”
Even off the ground, he searches for the source of his “confidence”. In order to find “words that feel right,” he goes to bookstores wearing a mask. He flips through the pages that interest him and heads for the cash register.
This is different from buying a book on the Internet. When asked if the process is meaningful, he says shyly, “It’s not very efficient, is it?
He did not reveal the name of the book, but one of his favorite books is a collection of talks by Major League Baseball player Shohei Otani.
He said, “Words that feel right to me, a mindset that I lack…. It is important whether you know them or not. I read books to see if there is something in them that I can connect to myself.
Kazuki Himeno, who played an active role in the Japan Tournament, has gained “confidence” to compete at the national level because he was able to use his natural power in Super Rugby, an international league.
Saito also experienced Super Rugby with the Sunwolves, the team that Himeno played for in 2020. He learned a lot, including the way his teammates behaved.
However, in Brown’s eyes, he did not seem to have gained the same “confidence” that HIMENO has. That is why, in his post-tour review, he told him, “You are who you are.
It is not so easy for even a top player with recognized talent to gain “confidence. Even so, Saito reminds himself, “You are you.
I worry about my surroundings…. I think I have given up that kind of self. That is something I really need to change.
Japan’s national team will welcome France, the host country of the next World Cup, to this country this June. With the expectation of a renewal and update of the playing style as necessary, what kind of accent will Saito bring to the team as it struggles to peel off its skin?
First of all, we would like to see Saito fully display his “identity” in the Ligue 1 matches until May, and build up his deep “confidence.
Interview and text： Mukai Kazemiya
Sportswriter, born in 1982 in Toyama Prefecture. Graduated from Seijo University, Faculty of Arts and Letters, Department of Fine Arts, and started working as a sports writer in 2006. He has been working as a sportswriter since 2006, mainly covering rugby. He is the author of "Sunwolves no Chosen, Super Rugby: Tsuyouru Wolves no Kiroku" (Sunwolves' Challenge, Super Rugby: Record of the Fighting Wolves) published by Futabasha.