Travel-weary Japan star ready to cut loose against B&I Lions
SPOTLIGHT: Rampaging Japan rugby star Kazuki Himeno on Tuesday pleaded to be let loose against the British and Irish Lions this weekend – just days after crossing the globe to join the team.
Loose forward Himeno caught a flight from Auckland to Edinburgh – via Singapore and London – 30 minutes after playing for the Highlanders on Saturday in their Super Rugby Trans-Tasman final defeat to the Blues.
He arrived more than 24 hours later – clearing coronavirus protocols – and declared himself fit to play in Japan’s historic first Test against the Lions at Murrayfield on Saturday.
“Even on such a tight schedule, if the team management trusts me, I’m ready to play,” Himeno told reporters in a conference call, one day after arriving in Edinburgh.
“Being able to wear the Japan jersey, whatever the situation, is always a great thing.”
The Lions named their squad for the game on Tuesday, but Japan head coach Jamie Joseph had yet to announce his.
The game will be Japan’s first Test match since their 2019 World Cup heroics on home soil, where they lost in the quarterfinals to eventual champions South Africa.
Himeno was one of Japan’s stars of the tournament, and he has made a splash since joining the Highlanders at the start of a Super Rugby season where he was named rookie of the year.
Now he believes he can enhance his reputation further by helping Japan upset the Lions.
“We’re preparing ourselves to win the game,” said the 26-year-old.
“For me personally, I think playing in Super Rugby has been good preparation. We’re all approaching the game looking to win, and we have that belief.”
Himeno was unable to help the Highlanders claim the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman title on Saturday, losing 15-23 to the Blues.
But he did manage to cap off the season by taking part in the Highlanders’ pre-match haka.
“I was more nervous about doing the haka than playing the game,” he admitted.
“I didn’t want to make any mistakes so I prepared myself a lot. My teammates told me about the haka and its history, and it was a great honour to take part in it.”
Himeno arrived in the Japan camp days after wing Kotaro Matsushima, who joined up with the team in Europe after playing for French side Clermont.
Matsushima has enjoyed a successful season in the Pro14, and he is looking forward to taking another step forward against the Lions.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Matsushima, who scored five tries at the 2019 World Cup.
“If we can beat them, then maybe Japan will get more chances to play against the Lions. This match will be a benchmark for the future of Japanese rugby.”
Japan warmed up for the game by beating a Sunwolves select side 32-17 in Shizuoka on June 12.
Head coach Jamie Joseph has picked a host of new faces as he works towards the 2023 World Cup, and Matsushima is keen to tap into that raw energy.
“One problem will be nerves, but at the same time, it’s a new team so there will be a lot of excitement,” he said.