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Dazzling Japan shows how diversity works

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At the top of the list is captain Michael Leitch, the 30-year-old loose forward who at one stage played for the Chiefs, but is now a Sunwolves player

Japans Michael Leitch talks to his players during the recent game against Samoa in Tokyo. Picture: Kyodo News via AP

Japan haven’t only dazzled the rugby-watching world with their excellent catching, passing and speed of play, but they have also showed what can happen when different cultures and nationalities come together with one goal in mind.

New Zealand-born Jamie Joseph is head coach of one of the most diverse teams at the 2019 Rugby World Cup – a 31-man squad made up of players from Japan, the Pacific Islands, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and even South Korea.

These men have all played their part in Japan topping Pool A and qualifying for the quarter-finals for the first time. They have also won over neutrals with their attractive brand of rugby and feel-good story.

Of the 31-man Japanese squad, 16 were born outside of the country, who for a variety of reasons made Japan their home, including opting to play Test rugby for their adopted nation.

At the top of the list is captain Michael Leitch, the 30-year-old loose forward who at one stage played for the Chiefs, but is now a Sunwolves player. He was born in Christchurch.

Leitch’s deputy and the man who led Japan in two matches in the pool stages recently, Lappies Labuschagne, is well-known to South Africans. He was born in Pretoria 30 years ago and after turning out for Grey College, played senior rugby for the Cheetahs and Bulls. When his path to becoming a Springbok was blocked by other players he decided to play club rugby in Japan and the rest, as they say, is history.

Lock Wimpie van der Walt is also a Japanese regular, having been born in Brits, and worn the colours of Eastern Province, Western Province, the Kings and Bulls.

A third SA-born player, namely Kotaro Matsushima, has become something of a superstar for Japan in the pool stages. Comfortable just about anywhere in the backline, the 26-year-old was born in Pretoria to a Zimbabwean father and Japanese mother.

While Matsushima spent most of his early days in Japan, he picked up and fell in love with rugby while attending Graeme College in the Eastern Cape in his senior primary school days. He would later also attend the Sharks Academy and play for the union’s junior teams.

One of the most recognisable “Brave Blossom” players is veteran lock Luke Thompson, who at 38-years-old is the sixth oldest man to play at a Rugby World Cup. This is his fourth tournament, having also featured for Japan at the 2007, 2011 and 2015 editions.

He was born in New Zealand and has won 70 Test caps.

Besides Leitch and Thompson, three more Japanese players were born, and learned their rugby in New Zealand. Wing Lomano Lemeki, centre Will Tupou and former Reds loose forward Hendrik Tui, were all born in Auckland.

Tonga has produced stars like wing Ataata Moeakiola, loose forward Amanaki Mafi, lock Uwe Helu, prop Asaeli Ai Valu and the very recognisable Isileli Nakajima, the 30-year-old with the white-dyed hair and goatee.

Japanese players born in Samoa and Australia include centre Timothy Lafaele and lock James Moore respectively, while South Korean-born prop Koo Ji-Won has made a life for himself in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Twenty-one of Japan’s 31-man World Cup squad are featuring at their first tournament. Besides four-time representative Thompson, the three other veterans of the side are Leitch, hooker Shota Horie, and scrumhalf Fumiaki Tanaka, who are all playing at their third World Cup.

This is the first time Japan have reached the quarter-finals. They will face the Boks in Tokyo on Sunday for a place in the last four.