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Nathan Hughes declares his Fiji ambition, likes ‘crazy’ Japan time

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Henry Browne/Getty Images)

Former England No8 Nathan Hughes has declared himself available to represent his native Fiji at the upcoming Rugby World Cup. It was the 2019 Six Nations when the back-rower won the last of his 22 caps for his adopted country and with the eligibility rules having changed since then, he has outlined his desire to now represent the land of his birth.

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Having exited the Gallagher Premiership last summer after a nine-year stay, the soon-to-be 32-year-old is currently playing his club rugby for the Tokyo-based Ricoh Black Rams in Japan. It was from there on Tuesday that he issued his come-and-get-me plea to new Fiji boss Simon Raiwalui, who took over in February from Vern Cotter.

There was a break-the-ice chat around the time that the regulations were altered in late 2021, enabling players such as Hughes to become eligible for tier-two nations following a three-year stand-down period from the last time they would have been capped by their tier-one nation.

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However, he has heard nothing since and has now voiced a reminder about his availability and desire to represent Fiji in France. “Yes, 100 per cent,” he said when asked if he was declaring his availability and leaving it to the Fiji coaches to get in touch. “I’m just focusing purely on Black Rams and just playing as well as I can and letting the selectors do their job.

“The coaches and their staff are all in Europe at the moment and I’m not sure when they will be coming to Japan. We’ll wait until the day comes. If he picks me, we will make the decision then, but we have got two more games to go (at Black Rams) and we are trying to finish as high as we can up the table and go from there.”

Whatever the outcome is for Hughes with Fiji, he is hugely supportive of the initiative that is now empowering the tier-two rosters, especially the Pacific Island teams. “I was fully with Dan Leo when he brought this up and I supported it. It gives the island teams more depth as well and a bit more experience in the team as well,” he enthused, adding his delight that the newly-founded Drua have encouragingly settled in Super Rugby Pacific.

“With the new Super Rugby team there, the Drua, there is a lot of talent, and they are playing well. All I can do is just focus on playing well for Ricoh and if I get selected well and good. I’m pretty sure we will hear soon.

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“It just gives the opportunity for the tier two nations to challenge the tier one nations and you can see the tier two nations when they play, they play with a lot of flair and stuff like that. If we can go and add a little bit more structure and what we have learned coming overseas, it will go a long way.

“This new Drua side they brought into Super Rugby, it’s good that a lot of the young players, the local boys, are getting exposed to the big stage as well. They played Crusaders the other day and turned them over. It’s quite good that you see the local boys shining on this stage. There is a lot of talent in Fiji, and I am one of the many waiting here patiently. I’ll do my bit and keep playing well.”

It was 2007 when Fiji last went deep at a World Cup, eliminating Wales in the pool stages and giving eventual champions South Africa a quarter-final scare in Montpellier. That was at a time when rugby hadn’t yet grabbed the imagination of the then-teenage Hughes.

“I never thought about rugby then, I used to play hockey. I didn’t know the sport back then, didn’t know the rules, I used to play hockey before that and started to play rugby in 2009,” he said before adding that he now understands the power of rugby and how it inspires his fellow country people.

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“Massively. A lot of people look up to you when you come from a tiny island. They look at you as a role model and what I can do is only give back when I go and visit. Even the Black Rams, you see a lot of Fijians coming to watch. You’re not just representing your family but the country as well.

“It would mean a lot to play for my home nation, representing the family and giving my family something they can cheer about. They supported me through my whole rugby career.”

When his playing career is over, home will be London for Hughes and his young family as his wife is from the UK. He has two more years to run on his current Japanese contract and reckons he might yet make it beyond that and through to the age of 35 as a player. The Far East, for sure, has given his career renewed energy.

“It’s good, it’s quick. It’s definitely quicker, with a lot more running. I’m enjoying it,” he said about League One. “The style of rugby at Black Rams, I enjoy it. We like to move the ball around and play a bit more. It’s good. No team here in Japan is quite easy. Everyone is tough, a tough team every week. You have got to look after those knees. The Japanese boys love chopping. It’s good. I’m enjoying the competition.

“It’s crazy, the fans, they are true fans. You win, you lose, they are always there to support you. Even when you are walking around on the streets they notice you, they come up, they are very, very kind and very polite and respectful as well. The fans, they are class here,” he continued, going on to reference the local attractions away from rugby.

“The food. The Japanese food and the places. Yakiniku, a lot of people will say that. The sushi is good here as well. Back in the UK, you eat the same amount you eat here you are paying a fortune… We visit a lot of places on our day off. I’ve been to Kyoto, Osaka, very good places and there is a lot to see. We haven’t ticked off a quarter of the country yet.”

Hughes reckoned that with the budgetary squeeze still affecting the Premiership, other players from the English league will consider a switch to Japan. He had his own last-season hardship, falling out of favour at Bristol and having to go on loan at Bath after a Championship appearance for Hartpury, but there was no panic on his part about his future.

“I knew (where I was going). It was a hidden secret for a long time. I knew kind of in February or March (2022) that I was coming to Japan. We were lucky that Clermont came as well so I tried to divert all the media people that way so they wouldn’t talk about me coming to Japan. It’s a blessing in disguise, a great decision and the best time to come here as a family.

“I am a happy person whatever I am doing. If I play, if I am on the bench, if I am just in the squad, there is always a smile on my face and there is never a dull moment where I come in sapping. I love the job that I do. When it finished in England it was quite sad leaving, leaving a lot of mates that you built over the years, but it was time to move, a time to freshen up and challenge myself.

“You will see a lot of boys leave the Premiership. I think so… A lot of boys have been asking, asking if I am enjoying it, if the rugby is good. I can’t talk highly about this competition. It has its pros and cons but this is Japan, you have got to move on.

“It’s a different way of playing here, a different structure that they have to the season. It gives the body a bit of rest. Some people tend to forget when you go to the UK you play 30-plus games a season and when you are here you are playing 16 and your body can actually recover a bit quicker.

“The England doors are closed for me to go back. It’s seeing how long I can play here and then probably call it a day. We are not getting young, we’re getting old,” he explained, going on to sympathise about last October’s demise of Wasps, another of his former clubs.

“It was very sad, a big club like Wasps. I played for six years and built a lot of relationships with a lot of boys, and it was quite sad to hear the news. We kept in touch with the boys and saw if they were alright and stuff. A lot of the boys have moved on and they have got new clubs and stuff. It was quite sad to see but it will be good to see them come back next year in the Championship and build themselves back up again.”

Although he now wants to play for Fiji, he still keeps an eye on how England are doing and doesn’t hesitate in naming Billy Vunipola as his preferred No8 at the World Cup. “I’m grateful for the opportunity that Eddie (Jones) gave. I took those 22 caps with two hands and represented the country.

“I support all of the boys that I know in the team still. I text them and we still catch up on WhatsApp,” he said before naming his No8 pick. “I’d still go for Billy. He is playing well but the coaches have their minds on different ways they want to play. Alex Dombrandt has been playing well and Zach Mercer is coming back because he has been playing well in France the last few years, and it will be interesting to see.”

Why Vunipola, though? “Just go forward. He understands the game and has a bit of experience in World Cups but I’m not a selector. That is just my personal pick.”

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