'I would like to play for Japan': Former Super Rugby speedster Tevita Li reveals test rugby ambitions
The 25-year-old spent six seasons in Super Rugby, three each at the Blues and Highlanders, having debuted for the Auckland franchise while still a schoolboy in an exhibition match against France in 2013.
Seen as a highly promising young talent in the early stages of his career, Li struggled to realise his potential in Super Rugby, despite dominating at provincial level for North Harbour.
That led to his departure from the Highlanders following the 2019 season, with the former New Zealand U20 representative joining prominent Top League club Suntory Sungoliath ahead of the 2020 campaign.
Li was a star for the Tokyo-based side in his maiden Top League season, scoring six tries in five appearances before the competition was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Returning for the 2021 campaign, which is set to kick-off on Saturday, Li will be expected to play a key role in Suntory’s tilt for their first Top League title since 2018.
Li has bigger plans than just capturing a Top League crown, though, as he revealed during an interview on the Suntory Sungoliath website that he harbours a desire to play for Japan.
“I would like to play for Suntory for as long as possible, and I would also like to play for Japan national rugby team,” Li said when asked what his future plans entail.
“I am not yet eligible for the next Rugby World Cup (2023), so I am aiming for the Rugby World Cup after that (2027).”
Under current World Rugby residency laws, Li will need to live in Japan for five years before he can become eligible to play for the Brave Blossoms.
Having moved to Japan at the end of 2019, that means Li, who is of Tongan heritage, won’t be able to play for his adopted nation until the latter stages of 2024.
Incumbent Brave Blossoms wings Kenki Fukuoka and Kotaro Matsushima were standouts for Japan en route to their quarter-final finish at the 2019 World Cup, but there is no guaranteeing either player will stick around beyond France 2023.
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In fact, Fukuoka has already confirmed his retirement from the national side and is set to walk away from the game entirely once his contract with Panasonic Wild Knights expires to pursue a career as a doctor.
Matsushima, meanwhile, will be 34-years-old by the time the 2027 World Cup rolls around, an age that only a select few outside backs can still operate at a world-class level in test rugby.
Granted, Li is only two years younger than Matsushima, but if he can continue to dominate the Japanese club scene as he did at the beginning of last year, it may be too hard to leave him out of future Brave Blossoms squads.
Nevertheless, Li refused to take credit for his impressive try scoring ratio, which could have been even better had he not missed an opportunity to score against Kobelco Steelers in a match Suntory went on to lose 35-29.
“If you look at the scenes where I scored tries, you’ll see that most of them were scored after everyone had coordinated well and set them up nicely,” he told the Suntory Sungoliath website.
“I think the try is the result of the team’s efforts, so I was there at the end of the chain, and I think I was able to fulfill my role.
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“There was a scene in the Kobe Steel game last season where I lost the ball just in front of the try line. That was quite disappointing for me, so I’ve been playing with more awareness of scoring tries consistently so that I can contribute to the team.”
Li said he hopes to get one back on Kobelco – a side stacked with former Highlanders teammates Ben Smith, Tom Franklin and Richard Buckman, as well as former All Blacks pivot Aaron Cruden and All Blacks lock Brodie Retallick – this season.
“Suntory Sungoliath is a club with a long history, and I once came to Japan for a week as a World XV player, which gave me a good experience and made me like the Japanese people,” Li said of why he decided to join the club.
“Another big motivation for me to come to Japan was my family, partner and daughter.
“Although I haven’t been able to spend time with them due to the influence of Corona, I definitely want to win this season and I will be well prepared for it. I have a strong will to get revenge on Kobe Steel.”
Suntory Sungoliath open their Top League campaign at 2pm on Sunday [local time] when they take on Mitsubishi Dynaboars at Sagamihara Gion Stadium in Minami-Ku.
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