The Japanese school where rugby took over
Stumbling blindly in the suburbs of Sapporo, following a series of instructions from a stranger who took pity on me, I find a 6ft x 10ft photo of Japan’s captain, Michael Leitch, marking a tryout in that famous game against the Springboks in 2015. It is displayed above a set of double doors located in what looks like another office building. This must be the place. And at the side of the building, in a muddy courtyard surrounded by a chain fence, 15 children perform passing exercises, and in the far corner another 15 are working on a scrum machine. It’s Yamanote High, the best rugby school in all of Hokkaido, one of the most famous in all of Japan.
“Here,” says Vea Taumoefolau, “as soon as you say ‘Yamanote’ people will say ‘rugby’. Vea is the tall, warm and sweet school number 8. In 2016, he found two Japanese scouts waiting for him outside his home in Auckland. They had seen him play for the under-15s of his school and wanted to offer him a scholarship in Japan. Vea had never even been as far as Wellington and he already had a place at Mount Albert Grammar, one of New Zealand’s strongest rugby schools. “It was pretty far down there,” he says. “But I decided I wanted to try something new.” Plus, “Tokyo was on my list of places to go.”
Yamanote was once best known for women’s basketball. A teacher, Mikio Sato, started a rugby club just to give dropouts something to do. At first he had to offer free ramen to get them to come to training. In its first three years, the club won one game. Things started to change in 2004, when Leitch came from New Zealand for a school exchange. He was 15 too.
“Leitch was a very shy boy,” says current coach Hironori Kuroda. It points to the horizon, which is dominated by a small, steep pyramidal mountain called Sankakuyama. “He used to run every day, after training,” Kuroda said, admiringly. Vea sighs wearily. “It’s so steep you have to do some of it on your hands and feet. It takes about 30 minutes for the boys to do this race. At the end of his stay here, Leitch was doing it in 15. “The mountain was his playground.”
“Leitch put Yamanote on the map,” Vea explains. “A lot of the kids here came to play for us just because it was his school.” Vea wants to continue and play for Japan too, as does Leitch. He previously played for the U18 national team. He must first finish his affair with Yamanote. They have the national championships, Hanazono, next month.
Vea is not the only foreign actor here. His cousin, Stefarhn Vahafolau, plays in the back and their full back, Ashden Ewens, is also from New Zealand. They say the game is faster here but more skillful there. They all agree that the biggest difference is the difficulty with which children work in Japan. “They take everything a lot more seriously than we do in New Zealand,” says Ewens. “In New Zealand we trained twice a week. Here we train every day of the week except Monday. Vea is in the gym at six in the morning for a 90 minute workout, then he has seven hours of school and after that another three or four hours of rugby training.
They burn a lot of calories. “Usually we have three bowls of rice and three chicken breasts for breakfast, along with soup, water and milk, then more rice and chicken breast for lunch,” says Vea. “Then dinner is a meal called viking, where we have whatever we want, fried chicken, fried rice. He sighs again. “I’m on the heavy side, however. I was 130kg when I got here and I’m trying to get down to 110kg so I have to skip that. What I have is a lot of salad and fish.
Vea had never seen snow until arriving in Sapporo. He fell ill the first week because he couldn’t stand the cold. The culture also took some getting used to. “In New Zealand you sometimes see teachers as your friends. Here you have to talk to them in a very formal way. I feel like my neck is bent from bowing from morning to night. It’s not just the teachers. “In New Zealand all players are treated the same, but here they have a system called senpai-kohai, senior-junior, which means you have to do what the older boys tell you to do. This makes it very difficult to communicate with them in the field.
Japan can be a difficult place for a foreigner, especially here in the suburbs. People tend to get out of the way when they see it coming. “But it’s not that bad. At least I can always get what I want in the store when I’m in a rush, ”he laughs. “And I’m glad I came, there are so many opportunities for me here,” said Vea.
He’s a senior himself now, a leader in the team and around the school. It was part of the deal. His stay here was not only about what he could learn from the Japanese, but what he could teach them. “They always ask me why the All Blacks are so good? he says. “These guys are afraid of strangers. They were afraid of me and Ashden the first time they saw us. I tell them: “We are just people, with the same skin and the same bones. He says their other problem is, “They don’t know we can’t carry the team on our own.” We must have them to help us.
This year, Vea wants to teach them brotherhood, get them to see each other with family rather than friends. “I want to persuade them that instead of always doing things the Japanese way, they could also use the New Zealand way a little bit,” he says.