After their successes at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, Japan were able, in part, to capitalise on that through the marketability and profile surrounding one of their star players, Ayumu Goramaru.
The talented full-back parcelled that form at the RWC into a move to the Queensland Reds and a season in Super Rugby, before packing his bags for Europe and a short stint with Toulon. Neither move worked out as well as Goromaru would have liked, with the 33-year-old returning to Yamaha Júbilo in 2017, but he was a lightning rod for all of the praise that was heading Japan’s way and he was held up as an example of how the nation could be competitive with Tier 1 nations on a consistent basis in the future.
With Japan set to host the RWC later this year, there is once again the opportunity for another posterboy of Japanese rugby to rise, something the JRFU will be particularly keen for, with the nation set to be involved with World Rugby’s proposed Nations Championship, should the competition get the green light in the coming weeks.
One name to watch out for is Shota Fukui.
The 19-year-old back rower recently captained Junior Japan in the Pacific Challenge, helping them to wins over both Samoa A and Tonga A and impressed with his physicality and maturity in the loss to a strong Fiji Warriors side.
He was part of the Japan U20 side last season that, although ultimately relegated to the Trophy competition this year, were extremely competitive in a one-point loss to Wales, as well as two-point losses to both Georgia and Ireland.
Unlike most players in Japan, Fukui opted to eschew the traditional pathway of going to university before signing a contract with a Top League club and instead joined up with Panasonic Wild Knights straight out of high school. From playing schoolboy rugby in 2017 with Higashi Fukuoka High School, he went to making his debut for Panasonic in 2018, featuring in their game against Canon Eagles back in October. He was also involved in the postseason games against Toyota Verblitz and Kubota Spears earlier this year.
That university pathway is one of the major factors that prevents Japanese rugby from competing regularly with the top Tier 1 nations, with their players often having to play catch up with their European and southern hemisphere counterparts at the age of 22 or 23, as their rivals elsewhere have usually had three of four years of professional rugby experience under their belts at that point. Fukui’s decision to bypass that route has seen him go straight into a professional rugby environment and the development in his game from the 2018 World Rugby U20 Championship to this year’s Pacific Challenge has been clear to see.
There has been the obvious physical development, which could be attributed as much to natural maturation as it could be to proper strength and conditioning coaching at Panasonic, but the improvements as a ball-handler, within his footwork and to his self-confidence, as illustrated by his leadership role at such a young age, have all the hallmarks of a player who has been able to focus on rugby as a full-time career.
He gets another shot to impress today, as he lines up for the World XV against the Western Force in the Global Rapid Rugby Showcase in Perth, before his attention will turn to the World Rugby U20 Trophy in July, where Japan will seek to gain promotion back to the Cup competition at the first time of asking.
Will he feature for Japan at their home RWC later this year? With the likes of Michael Leitch and Amanaki Mafi in the frame, this tournament is likely coming a year too soon for Fukui, but as SANZAAR turns its back on the nation and cuts the Sunwolves from Super Rugby, he gives hope to Japanese fans that he can be someone that the Cherry Blossoms can build around moving forward.
Japan have made great strides at the schoolboy and U20 levels in recent years and if more players opt to follow in Fukui’s footsteps and commit to the professional game slightly earlier, the future could be bright at both the club and international levels for rugby’s rousing giant. As for Fukui, we could well be watching a soon-to-be Japan captain in the making.
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