New Zealander Dearns Fights for Japan at Rugby World Cup; Skills Forged in Crucible of High School Team in Chiba

Hidenori Nagai / The Yomiuri Shimbun
Warner Dearns tries to stop the opposing team’s attack in Nice, France, on Sunday.

New Zealander Warner Dearns, who developed his rugby skills through hard Japanese-style training during his high school days in Chiba Prefecture, has earned his place as a member of Japan’s national rugby team, the Brave Blossoms, now in the World Cup pool-stage matches in France.

Dearns, 21, came to Japan when he was 14 years old, when his father was coaching a Japanese rugby team. At his father’s direction, after first attending an international school, Dearns advanced to Ryutsu Keizai University Kashiwa High School, which has one of the strongest rugby teams in the country.

Dearns was approaching 1.9 meters in height at the time of the school’s entrance ceremony. When the school’s rugby team manager Ryota Ai, now 42, first laid eyes on him, the manager had no doubt that he was looking at a future national team member.

But on the pitch, Dearns played like a layman.

Although Dearns had started playing rugby in New Zealand at the age of 4, high school was the first time he became serious about the sport. He could not keep up with the moves of other club members and became bewildered in practice. He sometimes wept and even vomited during the practices.

Manager Ai proposed to Dearns that he adopt a Japanese-style training regimen to make him able to use his body more flexibly. He had to repeat a series of moves in which he jumped over other members and then passed under their legs.

Dearns seriously underwent the training method even while sometimes complaining to his teammates that he could not see how it would lead to actual use in matches.

In addition to his earnest efforts, he has a special ability to easily repeat things once he has seen or heard them.

During practice, Dearns carefully watched the moves of senior club members and instantly mimicked them. He could not speak Japanese when he started high school, but his language ability improved to the level that he could make himself understood in daily life. He also became good at calligraphy and won a prize in an exhibition.

His height reached 2 meters when he was a second-year student. That year he was told by the manager to appear in the national high school championship as a starter. He swore that he would tackle and put pressure on opposing teams as much as possible.

True to his word, Dearns defended against the opponent’s kicks with blistering charges and made many tackles. His plays surprised spectators at the stadium. He led the team to the quarterfinals in the national championship in both his second and third years of high school. On the day when the team advanced to the quarterfinals for the second time, Dearns thought that he would one day lead Japan’s national team.

Dearns became a professional rugby player in 2021 after his graduation from high school and he was selected for the national team that autumn.

Dearns said that if he had not gone to Ryutsu Keizai University Kashiwa High School, he would not be who he is today. He added that he was glad to wear the jersey of the Brave Blossoms through the support of various people.

Instead of his childhood dream of becoming a member of New Zealand’s national team, the All Blacks, Dearns is contending for the World Cup as a Japan player. He was moved to tears when he heard Japan’s national anthem before the first pool-stage match against Chile. He also continued his dedicated performance in a pool-stage match against England on Sunday. He is expected to appear in upcoming matches and challenge global powers at the World Cup with the physique and the skills that he developed in Japan.