Ex-Maori ABs star to play for Japan at Olympics following eligibility saga
The 36-year-old has been named in Japan’s 12-man squad to compete in the men’s sevens tournament at Tokyo Stadium between Monday and Wednesday.
Bourke’s selection in Chihito Matsui’s squad comes nine years after he moved to Japan to take up a contract with the Ricoh Black Rams in the Top League.
The ex-Highlanders, Chiefs and Bay of Plenty No 8, who began his career as a utility back for Hawke’s Bay, will be tasked with helping guide Japan to a podium finish after they came in fourth place at Rio 2016.
Speaking to NZME, Bourke said he is “so proud” to be representing his adopted nation after first joining the squad in a training capacity three years ago.
“Towards the end of the 2018 season I was approached by the coach of the national 7s team and asked if I would be interested in playing at the 2020 Olympics, which of course at that time was a little over a year and a half away,” he told Hawke’s Bay Today.
“I accepted and began training with the team at the end of 2018 and all the way up until March 2020 when the games were postponed because of COVID-19.
“The squad had a break and I went back to my 15-a-side team to train until we knew what the plan going forward was.
“I re-joined the team again around August 2020 and now here we are. Named in the final 12 members and on my way to the Olympic village as we speak, something I would have never thought in my wildest dreams would happen.”
Bourke’s selection in Japan’s Olympic squad hasn’t come without frustration, though.
After gaining Japanese citizenship in 2018, the veteran loose forward was at the centre of an eligibility saga that came to the fore last year.
Despite being Japanese citizens, Bourke, ex-All Blacks lock Isaac Ross and former Australian sevens representative Brackin Karauria-Henry, were all deemed ineligible to compete as Japanese players in the Top League due to their previous experience in international rugby.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) July 24, 2021
As a result, all three struggled to attract the interest of Japanese clubs as counted against the foreign quota of two internationally-capped players, three foreign-born players who are eligible to play for Japan and one Asian passport holder.
Bourke, Ross and Karauria-Henry expressed concerns over the rule to RugbyPass last September, with Bourke saying he was “pissed off” that he was considered Japanese enough to play sevens for the country but not to be viewed as a local player in the Top League.
“I’m a bit pissed off the same group of people, they want me to play for them at the Olympics, and they want to pay me money to do so, but they won’t let me play for my club team as a Japanese player, which is where we earn our money,” Bourke told RugbyPass.
“We don’t get paid to play for Japan. It actually costs us a lot of money with transport and all that sort of s***. It’s a bit of a double standard. We’re trying to get their heads around how we see it as well, which is proving difficult.”
The Japanese Rugby Football Union opted against changing the rule last year, but Bourke has remained at the Black Rams, who have rebranded to Black Rams Tokyo as part of the revamped Japan Rugby League One competition.
Now at the Olympics, alongside Karauria-Henry, Bourke is “excited” to take to the field over the coming days.
I’m so proud to be a part of this huge sporting event and represent Japan,” he told Hawke’s Bay Today.
“My road hasn’t been the normal road travelled for an Olympic athlete but that’s what makes it so much more pleasing to have made it here.
“It’s been a hard two to three years, especially through this pandemic, but [I’m] stoked to finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Japan have been grouped in Pool B alongside Great Britain, Canada and reigning Olympic champions Fiji, who they will begin their campaign against at 9am on Monday local time.
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