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'Given any chances in the future, I'd go back': NZ return on the cards for Japan star?

By Tom Vinicombe
(Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

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It’s unlikely that the Highlanders would be sitting atop the Super Rugby Pacific table with an extra superstar on their playing roster but it surely wouldn’t hurt – and the southerners were likely very close to securing the signature of one such star.

Japan number 8 Kazuki Himeno, who made such a big impact at the 2019 Rugby World Cup, joined the Highlanders ahead of last year’s Super Rugby season and earned eight starts, despite spending the early stages of the competition in managed isolation and only first getting onto the park in the team’s Round 5 fixture with Hurricanes.

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Come the end of the campaign, Himeno was an automatic selection at the back of the scrum and started in the No 8 jersey in the Highlanders’ Super Rugby Trans-Tasman final loss to the Blues. Himeno returned to Japan not long after the competition concluded, however, to resume his contract with one of the powerhouses of the Japanese club competition, Toyota Verblitz.

Speaking to media this week via an interpreter, Himeno has revealed that he would have loved to have remained in New Zealand and continued his trade with the Highlanders, if it had been an option.

“I admit that honestly speaking, I did want to stay longer,” Himeno said. “But I had a contract with Toyota to come back in a year.

“Also, Jamie Joseph, the coach of Japan, did want me to come back and play for [Japan] as well, so it was a contract for a one-year challenge.

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“I loved the town of Dunedin, and I loved playing alongside all the boys at the Highlanders as well. Given any chances in the future, I’d go back.”

Simon Cron, head coach at the Verblitz, will take over at the Western Force at the end of the season and while he would no doubt love to take Himeno with him to Perth, Himeno suggested that was unlikely to eventuate.

“I love Hoops and I’d love to play alongside Hoops one day,” Himeno said of his former Verblitz teammate, Wallabies captain Michael Hooper, who has now returned to Australia and linked back up with the Waratahs.

“But if given the chance to play for a Super Rugby team, I’d probably go to the Highlanders.”

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“Overall, it was an amazing experience,” he said of his time in New Zealand. “One of the aims was to step out of my comfort zone and to be in a foreign land where I’ve never been, which would put me under stress in my private side. It was a tough condition to be in, but I really believed it would benefit my growth.

“I was learning heaps from guys like Aaron Smith and Ash Dixon, really true great leaders. They have really shown me and taught me was how to actually drive people around and that’s something I’ve really taken back.”

Toyota Verblitz currently sit in fifth place in Japan’s new Rugby League One competition with just five rounds left to play in the regular season.

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