NEWCASTLE, ENGLAND – While his former Waseda University teammate Ayumu Goromaru is enjoying the tropical heat of Brisbane, Australia, Kensuke Hatakeyama is in slightly different surroundings.
The 30-year-old Suntory Sungoliath tighthead prop is currently in the northeast of England on a short-term contract with the Newcastle Falcons and is set to become the first Japanese-born player in the Premiership for 15 years, the last one being Kensuke Iwabuchi, who played two games for Saracens in 2000.
“It’s a good city and I like it. But sometimes it gets windy and cold,” he said Wednesday when asked about his new home.
Hatakeyama — who has won 72 caps for his country and is the second-highest test-match try-scoring prop of all time with 10 — is scheduled, at this stage, to remain with the club until the end of the season, having turned down the chance to play for Japan’s new Super Rugby side, the Sunwolves.
“There was an opportunity and negotiations around that but it didn’t end in a contract,” he said. “I was thinking of having a good season off and this came up. I decided to come to England because I thought such opportunities are rare and it would be a great challenge for me.”
The Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, native — whose family home was washed away in the 2011 tsunami — said he was looking forward to challenging himself in an environment very different from the Top League.
“The Premiership itself is a league where forwards battle heavily,” he said. “I want to improve my scrum, maul and contact among others. Also if I am able to do well, I think in the future Premiership clubs will look to Japanese players. In that sense, if that happens more, Japanese players will come to the Premiership and will improve their game as well. For me personally, I want to up the level of my set-piece, and for Japanese rugby I want to increase the chance for others through my performance.”
Newcastle director of rugby Dean Richards certainly believes he has what it takes.
“The way he has adapted to our game in training already, in a very short space of time, has been brilliant,” the former England No. 8 said.
“I haven’t brought Hatake in to sit on the bench. I want Hatake to start and to play, because everything that I’ve seen in his play, he will complement how we want to play. And he has some great qualities.”
While Hatakeyama admitted he has had a few issues understanding the local accent, his arrival has been made a lot easier by the fact that a number of the Falcons have spent time in Japan, including U.S. Eagle Todd Clever, a former teammate at Suntory, and Tonga captain Nili Latu.
“Yeah I think that he’s a good add into our environment,” said Latu, who spent eight seasons with the NEC Green Rockets.
“He knows how to win, and that’s his drive. . . . So it’s an exciting time for himself and for me to see him over this way as well. It shows that rugby in Japan is growing and they are a force to be reckoned with in the future.”
When asked how much of the Premiership he had seen, Hatakeyama responded with the honesty that has made him one of the most popular characters in the Japan squad.
“Occasionally, the tight five did (watch),” he said. “But the backs are slower and so Japanese players might not watch it as much. But I think the type of tough rugby they play in the Premiership is something that will be needed from the Japanese tight five.”
He also showed his humorous side when asked about Goromaru and his high-profile move to the Reds.
“He has his battle and I have my own,” Hatakeyama said. “They are different fields and different countries, but in terms of spreading and improving Japanese rugby, I think it holds the same meaning,” he said.
“And even if I (do better than him) the media probably won’t focus on me.”