Tanaka leads the way as sun rises on Japan rugby

Fumiaka Tanaka is the smallest player in Super Rugby's history and the first ' but no longer only ' Japanese. Picture: Getty
Fumiaka Tanaka is the smallest player in Super Rugby's history and the first ' but no longer only ' Japanese. Picture: Getty
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SOMETHING seismic is happening in Japanese rugby. Always dismissed as a sideshow nation whose inhabitants’ lack of physical size was an insurmountable bar to their progress up the world rankings, a wealthy club game backed by the country’s big industrial conglomerates has attracted some of the southern hemisphere’s best players, driving up domestic standards.

Bit by bit, the Cherry Blossoms are dragging themselves up world rugby’s greasy pole.

When European rugby was still amateur, Japan’s “shamateurs” regularly gave much bigger foreign teams a decent game, beating a Scotland side missing nine Lions but containing Sean Lineen, Iwan Tukalo, Chris Gray, Damian Cronin and Iain Paxton 28-24 in Tokyo in 1989. But, in the professional era, their natural disadvantages began to count. At the 1995 World Cup they were hammered 145-17 by New Zealand’s second team. The previous year they lost 100-8 at McDiarmid Park as Scotland scored 15 tries. Their only win in 24 World Cup matches was against Zimbabwe in 1991.

Yet things have changed. Where 20 years ago they vied for regional supremacy with Korea, regularly coming off second best, in the past 18 months they have walloped Korea and their other main regional rivals Hong Kong, come within a score of beating Samoa, Fiji and Tonga, and dispatched Romania, Georgia, Canada and USA.

However, it was their win over a Wales side shorn of its Lions that really announced their arrival this summer. Having been pipped 22-18 in the first Test, they ran Wales ragged in the second, scoring 17 unanswered points as they won 23-8.

Since Wallaby Ian Williams switched allegiance to Japan in the 1990s, the country has hosted many gaijin but, after the Top League started in 2003, the number of foreign players in Japan sky-rocketed. As well as legions of Polynesians, the league has attracted All Blacks (Rodney So’oialo, Mils Muliaina, Rico Gear, Jerry Collins), Springboks (Jaco van der Westhuyzen, Fourie du Preez), Wallabies (George Smith, Joe Roff, Stephen Larkham, George Gregan, Rocky Elsom), and Six Nations players (Shane Williams, James Haskell, John Leslie, Scott MacLeod).

The speed and intensity of Japanese rugby (“games between Suntory Sungoliath and Toshiba Brave Lupus are comparable to games between sides in the lower half of Super Rugby,” says former Wallaby coach Eddie Jones) and the adoption of a meat-based diet which has seen young Japanese become significantly taller and broader than their parents have combined to produce increasingly competitive players at the pinnacle of Japan’s 125,000 participants.

It is ironic, therefore, that their best player conforms to virtually every Japanese stereotype. Scrum-half Fumiaka Tanaka this year became the first Japanese player to play Super Rugby, despite being just 5ft 5in and less than 12 stone, which makes him the smallest player in the tournament’s history. Tanaka was not highly rated as a youngster, but, playing alongside former All Black Tony Brown at Fukuoka Sanix, he developed into Japan’s finest No.9. Brown persuaded him to spread his wings and while playing for Otago in last year’s ITM Cup, the little scrum-half was spotted by Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph (who won nine caps for Japan during five years with Sanix) and was then offered a contract with the Dunedin-based franchise.

In an underperforming outfit but behind a Highlanders pack including big beasts such as Tony Woodcock, Andrew Hore and Brad Thorn, Tanaka has been a standout this season, quickly developing a cult following among the “scarfies”, as the Highlanders’ fanatical fans are known. Although he largely played a cameo role as a substitute for Aaron Smith, his match-winning performance when he started against the Auckland Blues proved that his unerringly quick service when he has the ball and his ability to close down space for the opposition when he doesn’t can compensate for his lack of height and tonnage. Joseph signed him for his ability to spirit the ball away from the breakdown and for his livewire play around the pitch, and Tanaka never let him down.

Although the first to be signed, Tanaka was not Japan’s only Super Rugby participant this season, with 5ft 11in, 16st 4lb hooker Shota Horie cementing his place in the Melbourne-based Rebels’ squad. With this season’s starting hooker Ged Robinson returning to New Zealand, coach Damien Hill reckons Horie is in the box seat to claim the No.2 jersey.

It is, reckon coaches such as Jones, Hill and Joseph, who have all worked in Japan, a glimpse into the future. “There are some gold nuggets in Japanese rugby who could easily fit into New Zealand rugby,” said Joseph. “The trouble is that, unless coaches have experience or knowledge of Japanese players, then you’re reluctant to go and get them. That’s their biggest challenge.”

Tanaka is aware of the challenge. “I feel a bit of pressure because I’m the first player [in Super Rugby] and, if I don’t play well, then Japanese players won’t be allowed to come to New Zealand again,” said the 28-year-old. “There are Japanese players good enough to play Super Rugby but I have to prove that I can play as well as New Zealand players.”

The frenetic speed of Japanese rugby is a strength, yet the relative shortness of Japanese players remains a problem, particularly at the lineout. There’s tonnage and technique in the front row, with tighthead Hiroshi Yamashita weighing almost 19 stones, but none of the second row options are over 6ft 4in, while the back row is bolstered with two New Zealand-born breakaways in 6ft 2in Hendrink Tui and 6ft 5in Michael Broadhurst, alongside big-hitting Takashi Kikutani.

The future is looking rosy though. Rugby is on the up in Japan, the quality of their play is improving. With corporate Japan determined to do its bit ahead of the country hosting the 2019 World Cup, the one certainty is that Scotland are unlikely to be scoring in triple figures this time around.