The 2000-01 season will be a significant landmark for Kensuke Iwabuchi. The former Japan international rugby player joined English club Saracens, the team he has dreamed of playing for.
Iwabuchi, who has earned 12 Japan caps so far, is the first Japanese player to sign with an English Premier League club and the third professional to play abroad in Japanese rugby history, following former Toshiba Fuchu scrumhalf Wataru Murata and former Isetan winger Yoshihito Yoshida, who both joined French League clubs.
Saracens is a leading club in the English Premier League, which has featured international stars since 1995 after the sport opened the door to professionalism. Under the guidance of player-manager Francois Pienaar, the captain of South Africa’s 1995 World Cup-winning team, the London-based club finished fourth in the 12-team standings but scored a league-best 3.5 tries a game last year.
This year, Saracens features some world-class players, including Australia center Tim Horan, England scrumhalf and Saracens captain Kyran Bracken and France fullback Thomas Castaignede.
“I wanted to play abroad and see how Japanese rugby measures up in world first-class rugby. I’ve had this desire for a long time, well before I was first called up for Japan,” Iwabuchi said shortly before heading to London.
Iwabuchi made his international debut with Japan’s 10-a-side team in 1996 before making his full debut with Japan in May 1997. He joined Kobe Steel in April 1998 after graduating from Aoyama Gakuin University.
But six months later, he headed to Cambridge University in England to study political philosophy for the next two years.
It was natural for Iwabuchi to have sought to play abroad. The native of Tokyo was “shocked” with the standard of international play in a Hong Kong Sevens game he attended when he was a fifth grader at primary school — two years after he started playing the sport. Since then, he has kept his eye on international competitions, such as the Five Nations and the Hong Kong Sevens, rather than domestic events. So, when he got an offer from Saracens, he jumped at it and had no regrets about quitting Japan champion Kobe Steel.
Iwabuchi did receive other offers from French and Italian clubs, but he said it had to be Saracens.
“I believe the English Premier League is far more competitive than the French and the Italian leagues, and Saracens is the one I most wanted to join,” said the 24-year-old standoff. “The club has top players from various countries. By playing alongside them, I’m sure I can learn their various thoughts on rugby.
“I believe Saracens is the strongest team in the Northern Hemisphere. If I can establish myself there, that’ll mean I’ll have done that not only in England but at world standard. This is worth the challenge.”
Saracens actually first contacted Iwabuchi two years ago, shortly before he graduated from Aoyama Gakuin University. The deal was put off at the time as Iwabuchi pursued his plan of studying at Cambridge. But his performance in last December’s Varsity Match against Oxford University impressed Pienaar and Saracens officials decided to sign the Japanese player.
“Were the last two years a detour for me? No, not at all. If I had joined Saracens two years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to impress enough to win a place,” Iwabuchi said. “I learned many things at Cambridge besides my studies, including how to win a place on the team among more than 100 players who had strong personalities and pride.”
From his playing experience at Cambridge, Iwabuchi also noticed a difference between rugby in Japan and England — a persistence and hunger in going for the ball. “Players in England can unite well on pinches and chances as if they were gathering to hunt an animal. That makes me wonder if that comes from their background as hunting people while we are traditionally agricultural people.”
It seemed the more he got used to European rugby, the more Iwabuchi became frustrated with the Japan national team situation. Japan was beaten handily at the 1999 World Cup and finished at the bottom of the six-nation table in the Pacific Rim Championship this year. Iwabuchi voiced his disappointment on the current national team.
“I don’t want to join them unless they find a clear direction and policy,” he stated. “If they have no intention of winning, there’s no point in joining them. Right now, it seems to me that they are trying not to lose. Team officials don’t explain what they want to do with the team, what kind of playing style they want to achieve and what they expect from us. When they become a team to seriously fight on the world stage and they need me at that time, I’d like to join them then.
“I think Japanese have the potential to compete well against foreign players as scrumhalf, standoff, winger and fullback. If you build up your body well, you can overcome a disadvantage in your physical size. But what matters would be whether you can speak their language. That is a must for scrumhalf and standoff, who control the team more than any other positions.”
Language ability shouldn’t be a problem for Iwabuchi, who speaks fluent English. But the situation at Saracens still looks tough for him as he has to battle Australian standoff Duncan McRae to win his place in the team. In addition, he has to be good enough to be one of the two foreign players allowed on the pitch during a game.
“I’m not worried about that so much,” Iwabuchi said, noting that his experience of playing most of the English Premier League clubs while at Cambridge has given him some ideas on the oppositions’ playing style and physical pressure. “I’m confident that I can do well once I get a chance to play for our team. It will be rather hard to get along with the other guys on the team, such as Bracken and Horan, who seem to have strong personalities. But it’s still fun to imagine what it would be like playing alongside these players.”
Pienaar said of Iwabuchi on the Saracens Web site: “Kenny will no doubt win many more caps. He is a player who likes to attack, and can disturb the best of defenses with his running ability. He also gives us an option as he can play fullback as well as flyhalf (standoff).”
Iwabuchi, who has personal sponsors such as Nike Japan, Kenwood and Sofitel Tokyo, sat out his team’s first two matches this season. But he is aiming to win a spot at standoff within a month.
“I’m sure an opportunity will come over the year. I want to play a game within a month and secure my place by the end of the (40-game) season so that I can play at Saracens next season,” he said.
Iwabuchi’s challenge has just started. It may be a tough road, but his strong determination and positive thinking will certainly be a big help in making his rugby future a bright one.