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Free agent Hopgood determined to make World Cup squad

by Rich Freeman

Kyodo

Japan has for many years been criticized for the number of non-Japan-born players playing for its national rugby team.

“Rugby mercenaries” is a term that has been used both within and from outside Japan, even though the Brave Blossoms are no different from England, France and Australia in making use of the three-year eligibility rule.

“We always seem to be singled out. It’s not as if we’re breaking any rules and it’s frustrating,” Hayden Hopgood, one of the few non-Japanese passport holders in the squad, said this week at the Brave Blossoms training camp in Miyazaki.

And for Hopgood in particular, the term mercenary is as far removed from reality as you can get.

Now in his seventh year in Japan, the 34-year-old flanker born in Christchurch, New Zealand, has been without a pay packet since March as he tries to make the squad for this year’s Rugby World Cup.

Having played for Toyota Verblitz for five years, Hopgood moved north to play for Kamaishi Seawaves in 2014 with the aim of spending a few seasons in a town rich in rugby history but battling to rebuild following its destruction in the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

But things didn’t go according to plan.

“They told me that because the World Cup team was away for so long they wouldn’t renew my contract,” Hopgood told Kyodo News.

“I was a bit gutted. I enjoyed my time up there. It’s a beautiful wee town and they are really good people and obviously the community is rebuilding since 2011. They are really pushing rugby and are going to be hosting games in (Rugby World Cup) 2019 so it’s a fantastic environment.

“But (second division) Top East starts in September so it would mean missing five or six games and they seemed certain I would make the World Cup squad.”

With the Seawaves leaving it late to make their decision and most of the other top sides in Japan having already lined up their “foreign” players for next season, Hopgood is resigned to missing the whole of the 2015-16 season in Japan.

“If nothing else does come up I’ll just go home and get back to work,” said the former Hurricanes and Chiefs flanker, who is a qualified exterior plasterer.

For now though, Hopgood is doing all he can to be on the list of 31 players that Japan coach Eddie Jones will name on Aug. 31 for the world’s third-biggest sporting event.

“It’s obviously tough on my family and my wife especially as we had our first child two weeks ago, but it’s an unbelievable opportunity so I might as well have a crack and good go at it,” he said.

Hopgood said it had been “awesome to play for Japan, the highlight of my playing career,” and that making the World Cup squad would be “a dream come true.”

“But it’s going to be tough,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of good flankers so I will just have to put my best foot forward and put my hand up for selection.”

On Sunday, Japan leaves for North America, where it will play four Pacific Nations Cup games. It then plays a World XV on Aug. 15 and two tests against Uruguay before Jones must make his final cut.

“I could be around for five weeks or it could be three months,” said Hopgood, who has played seven tests for Japan to date. “But whatever happens, it’s been an amazing experience.”