Kotaro Matsushima has been a highlight for Japan at the World Cup. Photo: EPA
Kotaro Matsushima has been a highlight for Japan at the World Cup. Photo: EPA

South Africa gave birth to Japan’s rugby poster boy

By mark keohane Time of article published Oct 19, 2019

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Remember the damage Kevin Pietersen did to the Proteas in international cricket. Remember Grant Elliot’s last over heroics against the Proteas when he hit the winning six for New Zealand at the 2015 Cricket World Cup and remember Kotaro Matsushima’s 2015 brilliance in setting up the try that would tie up the World Cup group match against the Springboks en route to their historic first-ever win over South Africa.

All of Pietersen, Elliot and Matsushima were born in South Africa, although Matsushima’s parents are not South African. He is the son of a Japanese mother and a Zimbabwean father, but his professional rugby roots are very much South African.

Matsushima, who started Japan’s World Cup campaign with a hat-trick of tries against Russia, has been electric in the tournament, and if Japan are to have any chance of upsetting the Springboks for a second time in the World Cup it will require the Pretoria-born flyer to produce something out of the ordinary.

Japan’s New Zealand-born coach and former All Blacks and Japanese international Jamie Joseph has described Matsushima as the Ferrari of Japan’s back division. Superlatives have flowed all tournament whenever Matsushima has been in possession of the ball. He is a player flying high on confidence and further boosted by the euphoria of a Japanese nation that believes another rugby miracle is possible.

Teammates have consistently raved about his impact and influence and the opposition have always singled him out, pre-match, as one of the most dangerous players. He had the respect of everyone pre-tournament but his presence has got bigger with every match played.

Matsushima is one of the biggest factors in Japan qualifying for a first World Cup quarter-final and they are a team that has lost just one of their last eight World Cup matches. Matsushima was very good at the 2015 World Cup when he scored in his side’s tournament opener and four years later, he has been exceptional.

Ironically, Matsushima’s first rugby port of call was the Springboks. He left South Africa for Yokohama as a five-year old, returned to South Africa at age 12 to finish junior school at Graeme College in the Eastern Cape, went back to Japan for high school and then became the first ever Japanese player to earn a rugby scholarship at the Sharks Academy in 2012.

His only early exposure to rugby was in the one year he played at Graeme College in Grahamstown and he won the award for the most outstanding under-13 player.

His potential was obvious when he was at the Sharks and his reward was an initial call-up to an extended squad for the South African u20 baby Boks. He didn’t make the final cut for a World Cup tournament in which South Africa finished third, but there had been sufficient in his rugby education in South Africa to convince the young man that he was good enough to turn his passion into his profession.

Matsushima’s rugby journey has been an incredible one, taking him from Grahamstown to Yokohama, to Durban, back to Japan, to Sydney and Melbourne in Australia and back to Japan where he played for the Sunwolves in Super Rugby and also for Suntory Sungoliath in Japan’s professional league.

The exotic nature of Matsushima’s rugby CV is that he made his international debut against the Philippines in Manila. This young man has travelled the globe in pursuit of rugby and in the past month has become the pin-up poster boy of Japan’s World Cup challenge.

He is the first Japanese player to score a hat-trick in the World Cup and he was brilliant in adding to his tournament try-tally against Scotland in the win that ensured Japan’s play-off qualification. A week before that he also crossed for the injury-time try-scoring bonus point against Samoa.

It was another moment of irony for this popular Japanese team when the first player to salute Matsushima’s effort was South African-born loose-forward Lappies Labuschagne.

Japan’s World Cup squad features 16 players born outside of Japan, which includes Labuschagne, Matsushima and Wimpie van der Walt, but Matsushima is definitely more Japanese than he could ever be South African, although when it comes to rugby then South Africa is definitely his spiritual home as much as it is his birth country. It is where it all started for him professionally and it is the place where he got to test himself against some of the best junior players and pioneer his path through the Sharks u19 and u21s, make his provincial debut for the Sharks and play for the Melbourne Rebels in Super Rugby.

It isn’t just at the World Cup where Matsushima has thrilled, with his try-scoring feats in the Pacific Nations Cup making him the tournament’s highest try-scorer.

Japan comfortably won the 2019 Pacific Nations Cup, with Matsushima a try-scoring presence throughout the tournament. He has scored 22 tries in 38 Tests over a five-year period and tomorrow will be the third time he plays against the country of his birth. He scored Japan’s only try against the Springboks in the 41-7 World Cup warm-up defeat, but was a constant menace to the Bok defence.

His performance against the Springboks pre the World Cup ensured he would start the World Cup opener against Russia and the pacy winger proved to be as much talisman as psychic. Teammate Ryoto Nakamura revealed that Matsushima had told him before the Russian kick-off that he (Matsushima) felt he (Matsushima) was going to score three tries.

If you are a Springbok fan, let’s hope he’s not talking a three-try feeling again. The perfect result would be as it was in the pre-World Cup match between the Springboks and Japan: South African-born Matsushima to get one try and the Boks to get the win.


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