Japan’s love of rugby may have taken a slight hit after the national team’s loss to South Africa last week in the Rugby World Cup quarterfinals, but the tournament has let fans here discover new teams to root for, New Zealand in particular.
“I got into the appeal of rugby with the World Cup being hosted by Japan,” says Kazushi Toyota, a Tokyo-based photographer. “In particular, the All Blacks are on another level, and I’ve known of them since even before I became interested in rugby. I plan to follow them and their successes after the games. They are the best!”
One local fan who has a unique perspective on the All Blacks is Luke McAlister, who, once upon a time, played flyhalf for the team.
Currently in his 18th season as a professional rugby player, the 36-year-old recently wound up an eight-year stint in France and was on his way home to New Zealand when a job opportunity arose in Japan. Now this former All Black is decked out in royal blue and playing for the Shimizu Blue Sharks based in Tokyo.
“We are trying to get to the top league, but are still way off the first division,” McAlister says. “It’s an interesting experience for me. I haven’t really experienced Japanese rugby before. I’ve played in New Zealand, England, France, even Malaysia, but coming here it’s very different.”
Joining a new team is always a challenge, especially when you’re not a local, but McAlister was drafted to help guide Shimizu Corp.’s second-tier Top Challenge League rugby union team along with six other overseas players. The team, though, is predominantly made up of Japanese players who maintain day jobs for Shimizu, an architectural, civil engineering and general contracting firm.
“When I arrived it was quite hard to integrate, because it was sort of like, them and us,” McAlister says of his teammates on the Blue Sharks. “You could kind of feel, these guys just turn up at 7:30 at night and have had to work. They’re kind of timid, quite stand-offish (at first), but once you have a few drinks with them, that’s when you break down the barriers and get to know them a bit more, it’s better.”
The McAlister 10-year plan
From the moment McAlister began showing promise as a rugby player, his father, Charlie — a former professional rugby league player himself — asked if he wanted to focus on his skills full time.
“I think I was 15,” McAlister recalls. “Dad said, ‘You’re pretty good at rugby, son. You could maybe make a career out of it like I did, if you really want to. But you know it’s not just gonna happen. You have to do a lot of work to get to where you want to go.’ So we sat down and wrote a plan about where I wanted to be in 10 years, the end goal being the All Blacks — and 25 was the age when I planned to get there.”
Following the 10-year plan penned with his father, McAlister worked hard to focus on his career and missed out on many of the typical perks and pitfalls of being a teenager. His efforts were rewarded, though, as he moved up through the rugby ranks from the under-16s to the under-19s, under-21s and finally, at the age of 22, McAlister was called up to play for the national team.
“The highlight for me was actually being named for the team, because you find out on TV,” he says. “Me, Mum, my sister and Dad were sat at home watching on the couch, it was quite nerve-wracking! And then, they said my name. … Ah, man. Mum burst out crying. It was a good moment. I’ll never forget it.”
The honor would prove bittersweet, however, as McAlister had to leave for his debut All Blacks tour the day after his first child was born. It wasn’t easy, but this is what he had worked for.
After playing for the national team for 25 games — and having achieved his goals prior to the deadline imposed by his 10-year plan — McAlister opted for a job change. At 24 he signed with an English side, the Sale Sharks based in Manchester. However, this too came at a cost.
“To leave New Zealand at the peak of your career, turning your back on your black jersey, that was seen as the worst thing any rugby player could do.” McAlister recalls, citing intense public pressure and media scrutiny. “It wasn’t just about the money. I just thought, I’ve got this vehicle where I can go and experience the world. Why not do it while I’m young?”
Timing is everything
McAlister continued touring the world off the back of rugby, including a successful seven years playing with French side Toulouse, where he says he played his “best rugby.” With his new position in Tokyo during the Rugby World Cup, and while interest in the sport across the nation is surging, the timing couldn’t be better.
“It’s a good buzz in training, it’s good for the boys,” he says. “It’s good for the country. All the kids want to play rugby now. It wasn’t very big in Japan, really, but now all the kids are signing up to play.”
With the rise in rugby’s popularity has come an increase in the visibility of non-Japanese players on the country’s national team. It’s something that has drawn some attention — not just from the rugby world here but also from the foreign press who push the idea that the added diversity challenges traditional perceptions of Japan. McAlister doesn’t think the increase in non-Japanese players is unusual, though.
“You look at New Zealand and there’s a lot of islanders, Samoans and Tongans, who have done the same sort of thing,” he says. “It’s happening all over the world — Samoans and Tongans are playing for England — so I don’t think it’s a problem.”
Aside from language being a major hurdle for McAlister, who has to communicate quickly with other players on the pitch, he has faced another important point of contention, this time off the pitch: Who is up for post-match drinks?
“We’ve got a good foreign group on our team: three Kiwis, one Aussie, two South Africans and a French-Thai guy,” he says. “We mix with some of the Japanese boys, too, but it’s quite difficult. The culture here is not really go out and drink after a game together, it has to be organized.”
A more complicated cultural clash McAlister has faced living in Japan comes from his Maori heritage. The rugby player is adorned with traditional Maori tattoos that have caused him to turn a lot of heads.
“I’m fully covered in tattoos,” he says. “When I get on trains, if I’ve got a short sleeve shirt on, little kids stare. Even the older ladies.
“My gym is real strict on tattoos, too. They even try and make me cover these,” he points to the small birds on his hands, “and I have to wear long sleeves. They’re real strict on them.”
Tattoo taboos aside, McAlister says he doesn’t have many — if any — critiques about life in Tokyo. He points out that the culture is almost void of petty crime, citing the fact that if you leave your phone in a bar, the likelihood is that you’ll get it back. This upstanding attitude isn’t as much of a draw when you’re angling for a try, though.
“That sort of honesty works in the opposite way on the rugby field, because in rugby everyone tries to bend the rules sometimes,” he says. “The boys play so by the law, but I go, ‘Right boys, we can sneak a few meters here as long as we don’t get caught,’ But they’re like, ‘No we can’t’ and I say, ‘Yes, was can!’
“They have to play by the rules!”
Luke’s latest chapter
With many of his teammates playing by the book, without fights or too much aggression, McAlister has his work cut out for him in trying to adapt to and lead in the world of Japanese rugby.
Having achieved his original goals early, though, it’s a good time to face new challenges.
“I’ve had a great life, I’m very lucky,” he says. “I would never have imagined that I would be living in Japan. If you said to me two years ago, ‘What will you be doing in two years?’ I would never have said Japan. I’m very grateful to be here, it’s a beautiful country.”
You can follow Luke McAlister’s journey in Japan on Instagram: @mcalisterluke10. You can even catch him playing at an upcoming Shimizu Blue Sharks game; visit blue-sharks.jp for more information.