Former Japan coach Eddie Jones has long said players and coaches need to go overseas to broaden their horizons.
It was a message he often expounded on in Japan and one he recently gave English Premiership coaches in his new role as England boss.
One Japanese player to take Jones’ advice on board is Kensuke Hatakeyama, who has just returned from a three-month stint in England with Newcastle Falcons, where he was used primarily off the bench.
“Of course there are differences, and if you’ve lived in Japan for a long time and then come to England, you notice a lot of things, but that was a good experience as well,” the tighthead prop said in a recent interview with Kyodo News before he left England to return to Japan.
“It wasn’t all positive, but it was a great learning opportunity, and it was fun to experience a different culture as well.”
Hatakeyama caused a bit of stir when he turned down the opportunity to play for Japan’s first Super Rugby side, the Sunwolves.
“It wasn’t that there was something missing, it was more that it didn’t quite align, match up,” he said. “It was also about bad timing. It was immediately after the World Cup (and) I really wanted a break.”
Having had a short rest at the end of the Top League season, he then headed to the northeast of England — the cold and mud being somewhat of a challenge for a prop that likes to run with ball in hand, not to mention the geographic location.
“Newcastle is a really nice town, but it’s difficult when you’re far from London. Of course Newcastle is great, there are great people here too. But if you think in its totality, you would have less stress near London.”
Fortunately for the 30-year-old native of Miyagi Prefecture, there were a number of players in the Falcons side with Top League experience.
And the presence of the likes of U.S. Eagles captain and former Suntory Sungoliath teammate Todd Clever, with whom Hatakeyama lodged, and ex-NEC Green Rockets captain Nili Latu helped the Waseda University graduate settle in, with one source at the club commenting on how quickly Hatakeyama picked up the local Geordie dialect.
He also learned quickly that things on the training paddock and within the framework of the club are done differently overseas.
“There was a lot to gain, and it was also just new, very different to Japan and that was interesting,” he explained.
“I shouldn’t but I kept comparing. In Japan you would train a lot more. And over here, because the seasons are so long, and because each match is physically exhausting, you tend to have an intense but short week. In Japan, and my team Suntory, there is a culture of hard work. The non-members would do fitness training the day before the last match of the season. Over here, the feeling is that it’s the end anyway so let’s just play soccer, and I found that interesting. Also, there’s a lot more days off. In Japan, you get about one day after a match, but over here it’s quite normal to have two, three days.”
Having returned to Japan, Hatakeyama’s next challenge is to help Japan prove last year’s Rugby World Cup was no fluke as it builds toward 2019 when it hosts rugby’s flagship tournament.
“To be honest, if I’m playing I want to play at the top,” he said. “In other words, if I could no longer play at the top, or I feel I can’t aim for anything higher, then personally I don’t think I’d continue. I want to be on the squad at the 2019 World Cup, I want to challenge myself until then, and if I couldn’t do it, my thought is that I would retire.”
And he had a message for incoming coach Jamie Joseph and his assistants.
“If they lead the team in the wrong direction, Japanese players would just all go in that direction,” he said. “If Japanese people were taught to cross the road on a red light, I think we would all cross and get run over. So we need staff who are good at directing, and in that sense we need a great coach who can bring in staff like that.”
However, whether Hatakeyama will be representing Japan as a domestic-based player or traveling back from an overseas club was something he could not predict at this stage.
“I’d like to try playing on the team,” he said on the possibility of joining the Sunwolves next year. “But at the moment there’s two young No. 3s, and the team setup is towards the future Japan national team, so I also don’t want to go in and be a nuisance. But of course I also want to give it a go. So with all that in mind, if a contract and everything were to come together, I would like to try playing on the team.”
But at the same time he admits he is also keen to venture overseas again.
“If there are any offers, definitely. I want to challenge myself in lots of different places.”
Even in situations where he ends up star-struck.
“We played against the Harlequins . . . you look around and think, ‘I recognize him, I recognize him as well.’ Chris Robshaw, Mike Brown, they’re all on the England squad. It’s awesome. I was playing thinking I’d like to get their autograph. I got so excited speaking to Robshaw after the match, I started following him on Instagram straight after that. He’s really cool, even if Eddie didn’t choose him as captain.”