As he embarks on a Super Rugby final with the Highlanders, we study the Japanese superstar
The rise of Kazuki Himeno
A buoy in the torrent of gold, you would never believe that this was the debut of the 22-year-old’s Test. But as the Australian dots multiplied and rapidly in the Yokohama exhibit, Japan’s next big thing, Kazuki Himeno, was doing an awesome and ugly job.
âHe’s made three turnovers on his own this game,â recalls lock Wimpie van der Walt from a day in 2017, when he and a green Himeno took their try arcs. âDoing that against Australia is world class, man. He also scored an impressive try.
In 2017, Himeno took an important step in his rugby career. It was one of the few, cutting at a hard-hitting pace. Earlier that same year, Himeno had been a star for Teikyo University. Shortly after, he was named by Rugby World Cup-winning coach Jake White as captain Toyota Verblitz’s man despite his young age. Then he reached that testing stage when a rookie Jamie Joseph saw something.
Related: Japan coach Jamie Joseph against the Lions
Today he is part of the Brave Blossoms, a respected No.8 workaholic outside and inside his country. He’s a Trans-Tasman Super Rugby finalist with the Highlanders and a popular export in a game that isn’t always so forgiving to the uninitiated. He not only took the New Zealand game, but he thrived.
Yet to understand how he got here you have to heed the signs he showed along the way.
“His debut with Toyota was incredible and it led to a rookie season that earned him Rookie of the Year,” said Ruan Smith, former Verblitz teammate.
âI was in third year. When I first saw him, I couldn’t believe his size, as a back rower, and his athleticism, his skill. He’s the first to cross the line, an excellent line-up jumperâ¦ Everything about him was immediately remarkable.
âThe strength of his game has been with the ball in hand, especially in the wider channels, but he’s just explosive on contact. He has good footwork for a tall guy, and he’s a natural leader. When he arrived, Jake was the coach. He appointed him captain and in Japan that just doesn’t happen – there’s a hierarchy when it comes to age. Everyone was shocked, but he just ran with it; everyone just ran with it.
âThey just saw that he was a special player. The captaincy came so easily, so naturally for him. You come to see from day one.
Smith describes him as well behaved and speaking softly off the pitch. âHe loves kids,â says the front rower of the Sweet Bully. When Smith’s daughter was born, Himeno was always ready to distract the little one. And respect: it shows.
What impressed others was his willingness to take the pointers that some provide and hone his game with them.
Van der Walt saw Himeno play in the second and last rows. And while his roster job may have been good for Toyota, this is an area where van der Walt saw the youngster drill into the details, along with national coach Joseph.
Lock laughed that at first his Japanese wasn’t great and Himeno’s English wasn’t great either, but they could meet in the middle after a few beers. And then, when they recently met in the Top League quarterfinals, the domestic teammates bet dinner on the loser. Van der Walt is still racking his brains over where to take the back rower when they are both in the same country again …
For now, however, Himeno is in New Zealand with the Highlanders.
It was a move that made sense, assuming the 26-year-old wants to keep climbing. Smith has seen steady improvement since the 2019 World Cup, when Japan made history by beating Ireland and Scotland on the verge of leaving the squad for the first time, then (according to Opta) he was the only forward to gain 200 more yards with the ball in hand.
Joseph had made history before, leading the Highlanders to a Super Rugby title in 2015, and it turns out that his national assistant Tony Brown is also in charge of ‘Landers now (although Brown has been out for the Trans- Tasman is campaigning because of his commitments in Japan).
Previously, Japanese scrum half Fumiaki Tanaka had become a cult hero in Dunedin. This season Himeno is gone. As Highlanders center Michael Collins explains, the forward found a way – instantly – to make it work.
âWhen Himeno arrived, he integrated straight away. He had learned all of the players’ names and nicknames in isolation, so he had a good introduction.
âHe’s a very diligent trainer in the gym and on the court. In fact, he lived with me and another companion for the first half of the season and his English improved tremendously. He fit in well at home and found a favorite Japanese restaurant so he had lunch and dinner there.
Everything was noticed outside the park as well, as Sky NZ presenter Honey Hireme-Smiler recounts. Rugby World: âHe’s quickly become a crowd favorite here, with his individual growth and his ability to adapt his technical and tactical understanding of how we play the game. Everything to become a dominant force in the Highlanders.
“His pace of work on the pitch, his assault races with the ball in hand and his punitive defense make him a versatile player and have earned him the respect of his teammates and New Zealand fans.”
It’s a feeling that rings true with Collins’ memories. The center points out that crucial turnovers are essential to their run this season, and he joins the small crowd gathering to mention Himeno’s port.
Of course, he had played in Super Rugby form before, with the Sunwolves, but in the Landers colors he stood out for the Kiwis. This season, he was named Rookie of the Year. Everything points to an impressive future. But should we appreciate it more now?
Van der Walt intervenes, assuming, âIf he played for a (traditional level one nation), he would be recognized as one of the best in his job. This is how I rate it. He’s a world-class player, for me.
It doesn’t matter at this point whether you see him up there too: you have to respect the commotion. By staying to play the Trans-Tasman Final, he now risks missing Japan’s 2021 showdown with the British & Irish Lions. But he took a big step forward by leaving his home to play among the best in New Zealand. and Australia. Like one of them.
Can’t make it to the stores? You can download the digital edition of Rugby World straight to your tablet or subscribe to the print edition to have the magazine delivered to your doorstep.
Follow Rugby World on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.