WELLINGTON, New Zealand — It was a bittersweet goodbye for Naoya Nomura and Takeshi Fujiwara, Suntory Sungoliath’s two promising rookies who left the Wellington club team Western Subs last Friday after a two-month training session to return to their team in Japan.
WELLINGTON UNION PHOTO
The two players, Nomura at No. 10 and Fujiwara at wing quickly earned their spots on the New Zealand club team after scoring their debut tries in a winning game in the local championship.
While Fujiwara had to withdraw from later games due to an injury, Nomura turned out to be a central asset at the key position.
Suntory sent the duo to New Zealand in order to help them develop and mature as players in a land where rugby is a major sport.
The game in Japan, however, still relies on amateur players tied to major corporations with little chance for mobility between teams or international challenges at the club level.
Suntory, on the other hand, is one of the innovative clubs that stresses talent development from an early age in and outside of the club settings, heavily relying on its international contacts.
The New Zealand initiative was set up by Alama Ieremia, former All Black winger, who played and coached at Suntory for the past six years.
Upon his recent return to his homeland to take up the position of representative coach for the Wellington Lions, Alama made sure to put his connections in Japan to good use.
“We chose these two players because they needed the most overseas experience,” Ieremia said after the Subs’ game.
“They play in key positions for the future as fly-half and winger. I am very glad with their progress. Nomura grew into his position and they both toughened up and made it through really well.”
The two-month period spent overseas clearly left its mark on the two players.
Both of the players, former candidates on Japan’s Under-19, Under-21 and Under-23 squads, had their first chance to train in a foreign setting.
Their regimen consisted of working closely with the team under coaches Brian Cederwall and former All Black Scott Crichton, developing kicking skills and playing in weekend games.
“At one of our games, I was playing alongside Hurricanes wing David Smith,” an enthusiastic Fujiwara said.
“This was a great experience that prompted me to consider an international career in rugby.”
Suntory’s talent development highly benefits the country at the national level.
Nomura and Fujiwara are both union academy candidates, while the company team delegated a record five rookies to the first round of John Kirwan’s national team, including Yusuke Aoki, who also debuted as best hooker of the season; Go Aruga, a fullback representing Japan’s first rugby dynasty; and blind side flanker Koji Shinozuka, whose last-minute injury caused serious reshuffling concerns for the national squad.
All this was achieved through the exceptional talent identification and developing abilities of head coach Katsuyuki Kiyomiya, backed up by ex-Queensland Reds head coach Eddie Jones, adviser to the Suntory team, from Australia and now Ieremia from New Zealand.
Fans on Wellington’s streets would quickly recognize and greet “Fuji” and “Norm,” as they became known in town, and treated them as local celebrities.
Nonetheless, the two young players, who also work part-time as drinks salesmen for Suntory, could not deny their ultimate devotion to their home company.
“I was happy to find C.C. Lemon in a shop in Wellington” said Nomura, referring to the chief soft drink brand produced by his company.
“It was expensive so other than rugby it also made me think about our future corporate strategies in New Zealand.”