Japan wing Kenki Fukuoka has been a star at this World Cup – but he’ll soon hang up his boots to focus on becoming a doctor. Rich Freeman reports
Get to know Japan’s Kenki Fukuoka
Any player who gets close to Kenki Fukuoka and is able to bring down the Japan speedster at the Rugby World Cup should make the most of it. Because the 27-year-old, who Eddie Jones has said is as quick as Bryan Habana, is not going to be around on the rugby scene much longer.
Fukuoka, who has scored 25 tries in 37 Tests, has said he will give up rugby in 2021 following Japan 2019, the Tokyo Olympics and one last season with Panasonic Wild Knights. This is in order to go to medical school and fulfil his dream – and continue the family tradition – of becoming a doctor.
“I never thought I would play until this age, but a home World Cup and Olympics have really motivated me to keep playing,” he tells Rugby World in Tokyo.
“My original goal was to stop playing after we had reached the high-school tournament at Hanazono. But then I got injured and failed to make the Japan high schools team. And while I was studying to get into university, I saw some of my peers playing really well and I realised I didn’t want to look back later in life and regret giving up so early.”
Such is the way rugby and sport are run in Japan that it has been impossible for Fukuoka to do a Felipe Contepomi or Jamie Roberts and pursue a medical degree, then career, while playing.
Fukuoka says: “There is a real misunderstanding in Japan of the role that sport plays. The environment does not allow players to continue doing what they want to do, such as studying.”
However, signing on with Wild Knights, who are coached by Robbie Deans, has allowed him some opportunity to keep up with his studies, as he signed a professional rugby contract rather than take on regular ‘salaryman status’ that sees a lot of players put in a full working shift in between training sessions.
“I got called up to play for Japan while at university and at the same time the announcement was made that Japan would host the World Cup, so I decided to seek out a professional Top League contract as that would allow me to do at least some studying,” explains the Fukuoka native, whose debut came in the city of his birth against the Philippines in April 2013.
Fukuoka, whose childhood hero was World Rugby Hall of Famer Daisuke Ohata, scored two tries that day and was part of the Japan team that a few months later beat Wales in Tokyo, the first Tier One scalp for the Brave Blossoms.
That November, he made local headlines when almost scoring at the end of a 54-6 defeat by the All Blacks, only to be stopped on the line by Richie McCaw.
For many observers, however, it was the tackle Fukuoka made on McCaw earlier in the match that was the standout moment. The then All Blacks captain admitted it had rattled him and was the reason he was so motivated to stop the flying wing from crossing despite the lopsided scoreline.
A week later at Murrayfield, Fukuoka bagged a brace against Scotland and in following years he has crossed the chalk against the likes of Wales, Ireland and Italy.
Of course, he was also the star of the show in the pool win over Scotland, scoring two tries as Japan booked their place in the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time.
He has also developed the defensive side of his game and is key in Japan’s kicking tactics. Deans says: “He would genuinely make any international side in the world. He’s a remarkable player, very fast (and) sees no obstacles.”
Fukuoka currently spends an hour every day studying after training, though the workload of the latter is set to increase as he looks to follow up on his appearance at the Rio Olympics.
“I have expressed my interest to play at the Tokyo Olympics, so the plan is World Cup, Olympics and then one last season with Panasonic,” Fukuoka says.
He is fully aware that there is a “huge difference going from 15s to sevens. It’s not easy”. Last time around the Japan sevens team spent six months in camp prior to Rio and Fukuoka says the team will need to do the same “if we are to medal, which is our goal”.
As he points out, good results in the World Cup and Olympics will have huge consequences on the sport in Japan. “Hopefully a good showing in both will show off Japan’s strengths to the world and will allow Japanese players to go overseas and learn. And then those players can some back and show what they have learnt and that will benefit Japan.”
This article originally appeared in the November 2019 edition of Rugby World magazine.
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