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Highlanders sign Japanese test star for 2021 Super Rugby Aotearoa season

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images)

The widespread change in personnel over the Super Rugby offseason has continued at the Highlanders, with the franchise signing Japan star Kazuko Himeno for the 2021 season.

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The move was announced by his Top League club Toyota Verblitz on Monday, meaning the 26-year-old loose forward will join Brave Blossoms assistant coach Tony Brown – who is also Highlanders assistant and is tipped to take the vacant head coach role – in Dunedin next year.

Toyota, the club that signed former All Blacks captain Kieran Read and ex-All Blacks coach Steve Hansen last year, have also recruited Wallabies skipper Michael Hooper and ex-Chiefs duo Tiaan Falcon and Michael Allardice in recent months.

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In a statement released on the club’s website, Himeno said it was a difficult decision to leave Japan, but felt it was the right move to develop as a player.

“We are going to challenge Super Rugby at Highlanders in New Zealand. I will do my best to give back by leaving results on the ground, without forgetting the feelings of gratitude to President Toyota and other related parties who are willing to send me this challenge, and to all the fans who have always supported me,” he said.

“I thought it was necessary for me now to leave the environment of my comfortable Japan and play from scratch.

“In addition, I believe that the success of Japanese people overseas will bring many things to the Japanese rugby world in the future, and I hope that you will feel the courage and excitement through my success.

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“It’s sad that I can’t play in front of Japanese rugby fans, but when I come back, I hope I can show you how much I’ve grown.”

By joining the Highlanders, the 17-test international, who started in all five of Japan’s World Cup games last year, joins a growing list of new acquisitions for the upcoming Super Rugby Aotearoa season.

The Highlanders have already bolstered their stocks by bringing in former Crusaders teammates Billy Harmon and Fetuli Paea, both of whom will aide the departures of new Blues flanker Dillon Hunt and out-of-contract trio Ash Dixon, Teihorangi Walden and Josh McKay.

Experienced midfielder Rob Thompson has also confirmed he has ended his time with the Highlanders, while head coach of the past three seasons Aaron Mauger wasn’t offered a contract renewal following this year’s campaign.

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Predominantly a No. 8, Himeno will have stern competition for a starting role given the rise of Marino Mikaele-Tu’u this season, while the franchise also boasts All Blacks flanker Shannon Frizell in what is looking a strong loose forward contingent.

Himeno will become the second Japanese player to play for the Highlanders, with veteran halfback Fumiaki Tanaka making 46 appearances and winning a Super Rugby title with the team during his four-season stay between 2013 and 2016.

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Turlough 1 hours ago
Jean de Villiers' three word response to 'best in the world' debate

This ‘raging’ debate is only happenning in media circles and has never been a topic in Ireland (although SA media are interested). It makes the media companies money I guess. SA are RWC champions and #1 ranked team although Ireland are back within a point there. The facts point to SA. For a lot of 2021 France beat ALL their rivals and Ireland similar in 2022-2023. It is not wrong to say that on such form either can be deemed to be the current best team if they have beaten all their rivals and ranked #1. The ‘have to have won a world cup’ stipulation is nonsense. The world cup draw and scheduling has been tailored to the traditional big teams since the start. The scheduling also which sees the big teams sheltered from playing a hard pool match the week before has also been a constant. It is extraordinary that for example France have made so many finals. Ireland who were realistically only contenders in 2023 were in a Pool with two other top 5 teams and had to play one of them 7 days before a quarter final against France or New Zealand. Always going to be a coin toss. Scotland’s situation was worse. New Zealand had great chances in 1995, 1999, 2007 but they could not win a tight RWC match. The first tight match they ever won was versus France in the 2011 final, literally they lost every other tight match before that. Some of those NZ teams around that era were #1 surely?

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