‘Ferrari’ Matsushima Looking to Drive Japan’s Challenge

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Kotaro Matsushima scores a try during Japan’s away match against Italy on Aug. 26.

TOKYO (AFP-Jiji) — Kotaro Matsushima is the “Ferrari” who helped drive Japan to the 2019 Rugby World Cup quarterfinals — now he’s looking to find an extra gear as the Brave Blossoms launch an outside bid for the title.

The jet-heeled utility back was one of the stars of the tournament four years ago, scoring five tries as Japan stunned Ireland and Scotland to reach the knockout round for the first time.

Head coach Jamie Joseph likened him to an Italian sports car but the 30-year-old has since added French flair to his game, following two seasons with Top 14 side Clermont.

Veteran Michael Leitch believes Japan can win this year’s World Cup and Matsushima is just as keen to take the Brave Blossoms into uncharted territory.

“First we need to make sure we get to the quarterfinals, then I want to see what’s beyond the wall we couldn’t get past last time round,” Matsushima said at a training camp ahead of the tournament.

Matsushima, who was born in Pretoria to a Zimbabwean father and a Japanese mother, is set to appear at his third World Cup.

He has added a new dimension to his game after becoming one of only a handful of Japanese players to feature in France’s Top 14 league.

His widely anticipated Clermont debut lasted just 16 minutes before he was forced off with a thigh injury, but he soon began to showcase his electric skills and scored some important tries.

He squirmed over the line at the death to send Clermont past Wasps in a 2021 European Champions Cup knockout tie — one of 10 tries he scored that season.

Matsushima returned to the Japanese league at the end of 2022 and his stint in France taught him “the demands of a professional rugby player”, according to Joseph.

“It’s just the grind of getting up every Sunday, every Monday, and becoming a professional — I think that was quite challenging,” Joseph said in September last year.

“It’s exciting for me as the coach to have him back in the team because he’s a real quality rugby player.”

Matsushima is now one of Japan’s elder statesmen and he exudes a quiet confidence.

His scoring exploits at the 2019 World Cup made him an overnight star at home, as rugby fever swept a nation usually obsessed with baseball.

Matsushima said the attention “sometimes gets too much” for him, and he tries to keep sport in perspective.

“After the 2019 Rugby World Cup, a lot of media were after the Japan players,” he said in June 2021.

“You have to let it go, don’t take it too seriously. Relax and not put pressure on yourself.”

Matsushima moved to Japan at the age of six, initially playing football before moving back to South Africa after primary school and taking up rugby.

He returned to Japan at 13 to complete his schooling, then moved back to South Africa to join the Sharks in Durban.

While there, he played against future Springboks winger Cheslin Kolbe, who later described Matsushima as a “phenomenal” player with an “X-factor that he can bring to a team.”

But while Kolbe went on to play for South Africa, Matsushima chose Japan and won his first cap against the Philippines in 2014.

He was part of the Brave Blossoms side that shocked the Springboks at the 2015 World Cup, but he really came into his own with a hat-trick in Japan’s opening win over Russia at the 2019 tournament.

He said after that match that he wanted to “stay greedy” in search of more tries.

That attitude has not left him as he attempts to help Japan get past the quarterfinal “barrier” at this year’s World Cup.

“In order for us to do that, I don’t want to waste a single day,” he said.