As he charges into a Super Rugby final with the Highlanders, we study the Japanese superstar

The rise of Kazuki Himeno

A buoy in the golden torrent, you would never believe that it was the 22-year-old’s Test debut. But as Australian points came thick and fast in the Yokohama exhibition, Japan’s next big thing Kazuki Himeno was getting through some impressive ugly work.

“He made three turnovers on his own that game,” remembers lock Wimpie van der Walt of a day in 2017, when he and a green Himeno took their Test bows. “To do that against Australia, that’s world class, man. He scored an awesome try too.”

In 2017, Himeno took a major step in his rugby journey. It was one of a few, chopping in at a percussive pace. Earlier that same year, Himeno had been a star for Teikyo University. Shortly after that, he was singled out by Rugby World Cup-winning coach Jake White as the man to captain Toyota Verblitz, despite his tender age. Then he hit that Test stage as a rookie Jamie Joseph had seen something in.

Related: Japan coach Jamie Joseph on facing the Lions

Today, he is a fixture for the Brave Blossoms, a workaholic No 8 respected outside of his country and within. He was a Super Rugby Trans-Tasman finalist with the Highlanders and a popular export into a game that is not always so forgiving for the uninitiated. He not only took to New Zealand’s game, but he thrived.

Yet in order to understand how he got here, you have to heed the signs he showed along the way.

“His debut game for Toyota was unbelievable and that just led into a rookie season that got him rookie of the year,” explains former Verblitz team-mate Ruan Smith.

“I was in my third year. When I first saw him, I couldn’t believe the size of him, as a back-rower, and his athletic ability, his skill. He’s first across the line, a strong lineout jumper… Just everything about him was an immediate standout.

“The strength in his game has been ball in hand, especially in the wider channels, but he’s just explosive through contact. He has good footwork for a big guy, and he’s a natural leader. When he first came, Jake was the coach. He made 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.

Kazuki Himeno

Himeno scores on debut (Getty Images)

“They just saw that he was a special player. The captaincy came so easy, so naturally for him. You just saw from day one.”

Smith describes him as well-mannered and softly spoken off the field. “He loves kids,” the front-rower explains of the gentle brute. When Smith’s daughter was born, Himeno was always willing to distract the wee one. And respect: that shone through.

What has impressed others is his willingness to take the pointers some provide and sharpen his game with them.

Van der Walt has seen Himeno play across the second and back rows. And while his lineout work may have been good for Toyota, it’s an area van der Walt saw the youngster drill the details on, with national coach Joseph.

The lock laughs that back in the early days, his Japanese wasn’t great and Himeno’s English wasn’t either, but they could meet in the middle after a few beers. And then when they recently met in a Top League quarter-final, the national team-mates wagered a dinner on the loser. Van der Walt is still racking his brain for where to take the back-rower when they are both in the same country again…

Midway through the Top League season, Himeno made for New Zealand and the Highlanders.

It was a move that made sense, if you assume that the now-26-year-old wants to continue climbing upwards. Smith has seen the steady improvement since the 2019 World Cup, when Japan made history by beating Ireland and Scotland on their way to getting out of the group for the first time, and then (according to Opta) he was the only forward to gain 200-plus metres with ball in hand.

Joseph had already made history of his own, leading the Highlanders to a Super Rugby title in 2015, and it just so happens that his national assistant Tony Brown is also in charge at ‘Landers now (although Brown was absent for the Trans-Tasman campaign due to his Japan commitments).

Previously, Japanese scrum-half Fumiaki Tanaka had become a cult hero in Dunedin. This season Himeno headed over. As Highlanders centre Michael Collins explains, the forward found a way – instantly – to make it work.

“When Himeno arrived he fitted in straight away. He had learnt all the players’ names and nicknames in isolation, so he had a good intro.

“He’s a really diligent trainer in the gym and on the field. He actually lived with me and another mate for the first half of the season and his English has improved massively. He fit in well at home, and he found a favourite Japanese restaurant so he had lunch and dinners there.”

It was all noticed off the park too, as Sky NZ presenter Honey Hireme-Smiler tells Rugby World: “He quickly became one of the crowd favourites here, with his individual growth and ability to adapt his technical and tactical understanding of how we play the game. All to become a dominant force in the Highlanders.

“His work-rate around the field, barn-storming runs with ball in hand, and punishing defence makes him an all-round player and earnt him the respect of his team-mates and the NZ fans.”

It’s a sentiment that rings true with Collins’s recollections. The centre points to crucial turnovers as vital to their run this season, and he joins the small crowd gathering to mention Himeno’s carrying. 

Sure he had played in a previous guise of Super Rugby, with the Sunwolves, but in ‘Landers colours he stood out for the Kiwis. This season, he was named their Rookie of the Year. Everything points to an impressive future. But should we appreciate him more now?

Van der Walt interjects, surmising: “If he played for a (traditional Tier One nation) he would be recognised as one of the best in his position. That’s how highly I rate him. He is a world-class player, for me.”

Whether you see him up there too is largely irrelevant at this point: you have to respect the hustle. After staying on to play the Trans-Tasman final, he starts on the bench Japan’s showdown with the British & Irish Lions 2021. But he has taken a big step leaving his home to play amongst the best in New Zealand and Australia. As one of them.

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