Japan star outclass Kiwis for Super Rugby Aotearoa gong
SPOTLIGHT: Japan star Kazuki Himeno has been named Super Rugby Aotearoa Rookie of the Year following an impressive debut campaign with the Highlanders this season.
The 26-year-old was voted the competition’s standout newcomer by a panel of writers from allblacks.com, beating out the likes of teammate Connor Garden-Bachop, Blues lock Sam Darry, Hurricanes playmaker Ruben Love and Chiefs utility forward Samipeni Finau for the award.
While Himeno previously played Super Rugby for the Sunwolves in 2018, the 17-test loose forward is eligible for the award on the basis that he was playing in his first season as a contracted New Zealand-based player.
The award comes after a series of compelling displays by Himeno, who was at the forefront of much of the Highlanders’ success this year, even if it that only came in the form of just three wins from eight matches.
Vigorous on attack and uncompromising on defence, Himeno showed many of the same traits that made him a star at the 2019 World Cup as part of the history-making Brave Blossoms squad that qualified for the quarter-finals for the first time ever.
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A breakout performance against the Crusaders in the Highlanders’ 33-12 upset win over the reigning champions in Christchurch was followed by more eye-catching efforts against the Chiefs and Blues in Dunedin.
Himeno claims the award despite having missed the Highlanders’ first three matches of the competition due to his two-week quarantine upon his arrival in New Zealand from Japan, and then a subsequent lack of fitness as a result of his isolation.
Himeno’s efforts have been recognised by Japan head coach Jamie Joseph, who last month included him in a 52-man training squad to prepare for the British and Irish Lions in a warm-up clash in Edinburgh on June 26 ahead of their upcoming tour of South Africa.
The Highlanders, meanwhile, will kick-off the inaugural Super Rugby Trans-Tasman season against the Reds at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin next Friday.
By Alex McLeod, Rugbypass