Japan wingers Matsushima and Fukuoka – humble in a sea of praise

Japan wingers Kotaro Matsushima and Kenki Fukuoka have been responsible for the lion’s share of the tries in Brave Blossoms’ historic run, but they prefer to downplay their importance to the team.

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Japan wingers Kotaro Matsushima and Kenki Fukuoka have delivered nine of their team’s 13 tries to propel their team into the knockout stages for the first time but both have downplayed their importance.

South African-born winger stays grounded

Matsushima wouldn’t allow coach Jamie Joseph waxing lyrical to go to his head, insisting he is just a humble servant of his team. Joseph had described his wings as a pair of Ferrari’s but neither were in the mood to bask in the plaudits. 

“This isn’t an individual sport so I’ll be putting my team first,” he said, “but when the ball comes around I want to take them on with my footwork and pace and showcase myself.

SA-born Matsushima started the RWC in barnstorming fashion as he ran in a hat-trick against Russia in the tournament opener on 20 September to hand his team a welcome bonus-point in a 30-10 Japan win. He secured another bonus-point when he crossed for his team’s fourth try after the gong in the 38-19 victory over Samoa on 5 October.

Born in Johannesburg to a Zimbabwean father and Japanese mother, Matsushima left for Japan at the age of six, but returned to South Africa at age 12 when he was introduced to rugby at Graeme College in the Eastern Cape. After graduating from high school in Japan, he joined the Sharks Academy in Durban, where he stayed for three years making his senior debut in what was then the Vodacom Cup and marking the occasion with a try. In 2013 he returned to Japan to take up a contract with Suntory Goliath which remains his club to this day.

Matsushima was unreserved in his praise for wingmate and cult hero Fukuoka, who scored the winning try against Ireland and a vital brace against Scotland.

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Japan’s players celebrate winning the Japan 2019 Rugby World Cup Pool A match between Japan and Scotland at the International Stadium Yokohama in Yokohama on October 13, 2019. (Photo by William WEST / AFP)

Japan cult hero Kenki Fukuoka

“For me, the Ferrari is Kenki Fukuoka,” said Matushima.

Fukuoka laughed off the praise though coming up with a witty and quintessentially Japanese retort.

“Ferraris are sometimes known for their poor fuel efficiency,” Fukuoka quipped.

Fukuoka’s brace was instrumental in Japan’s 28-21 win over Scotland in their pool decider on 13 October, but his efforts weren’t limited to getting on the score sheet. He did great work to break through and set with Matsushima in with an exquisite offload 17 minutes to ensure Japan hit back after Scotland had scored the first try. Fukuoka was the man who secured the final turnover and ensured Japan won the match and headed into the quarterfinals to face the Springboks.

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This will likely be Fukuoka’s final Rugby World Cup as he prepares to hang up his boots and go into the medical profession. The winger said he could not feel better than he does after making it to the Rugby World Cup knockout stages with the Brave Blossoms for the first time. 

“We’ve made the new history for the Japanese rugby, I can’t feel better,” he said after clinching the last eight spot. “We really sacrificed everything for this moment.” 

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