Rugby | ADDING THE EXTRAS

With ban lifted, Christian Loamanu hopes for return to Top League

by Rich Freeman

Former Brave Blossoms wing Christian Loamanu is hoping for a shot at redemption and the opportunity to finish his rugby career in Japan. But he will have to get past some longstanding animosity and overcome some new challenges if his wish is to come true.

Back in 2009, Loamanu, now aged 32 years old, seemed to have the world at his feet.

The “rock star” of Japanese rugby, as one of his former Toshiba Brave Lupus teammates described him, Loamanu had 16 Brave Blossoms caps to his name, having made his international debut for his adopted country aged just 18 years 338 days, at the time the youngest player to ever play for Japan.

He was a key member of John Kirwan’s squad at the 2007 Rugby World Cup and looked set for a long international future.

But following a Top League game against Suntory Sungoliath on Jan. 12, 2009, his world came crashing down after a drug test detected traces of cannabis in his sample.

The Japan Rugby Football Union reacted quickly, banning him for an indefinite period, in part because four years earlier he had been handed a one-year ban from the national team after getting embroiled in an altercation involving female professional wrestler Mika Akino in Tokyo’s Roppongi district — an event he still denies having participated in.

“I never heard anything directly from the JRFU,” Loamanu told me during a recent visit to Tokyo. “In fact I only found out about the test results from the TV and when friends started calling me.”

A day later, the police searched his flat “and found nothing.”

“I was expecting a two- to four-week ban, certainly not the indefinite ban I was given.”

In addition to cannabis, “another substance” was also discovered, but Loamanu claims he was never been told what it was and with no hope of plying his trade in Japan he headed overseas.

Attempts to have the ban lifted in time for the 2011 Rugby World Cup fell on deaf ears, with one JRFU board member telling Kyodo News: “He (Loamanu) caused a lot of trouble for everyone, and he isn’t appropriate for the national team. Even if the subject comes up, it will be firmly shot down.”

With the help of the International Rugby Players’ Association, the unprecedented ban was eventually lifted in December 2014. But Loamanu’s hopes of playing in the 2015 World Cup were again dashed, with the wing saying that there were people within the JRFU who blocked his selection.

“I know Eddie Jones wanted me to play and tried to get me included,” he said. “So it really hurt.”

Further attempts at returning to Japan have been thwarted by bad circumstance. Most recently, Loamanu’s efforts have been upstaged by the alleged misdemeanors of another Tongan-born Japan international, Amanaki Lelei Mafi, who is still awaiting trial over the alleged assault of a teammate in New Zealand.

“I was all set to sign for (Top League side) Hino (Red Dolphins) last year when the Mafi incident occurred,” Loamanu said. “And since then everything has been put on hold.”

Currently helping his Waseda University-educated wife run the family shabu shabu restaurant in Taiwan, Loamanu hopes a side will allow him one last chance to play in Japan.

“I want to clear my name,” he said. “I don’t want my image to be as it is. I have three kids and I want them to see me a role model. I want to be someone that young rugby players can look up to.”

Loamanu, who at present plays for and coaches an amateur team in Taiwan, says he has a few years left in him and wants to put them to good use.

“I want to pass on my experiences of playing overseas,” he said of a career that has seen him play for powerhouses such as Leicester Tigers in the English Premiership and Toulon in the French Top 14.

“I don’t care who I play for. I just want to show them I can still play. I don’t want things left as they are, because it’s a mess.”

“Besides I’ve got unfinished business,” he said, referring to the JRFU’s decision to strip him of the 12 tries he scored in the 2008-09 Top League regular season, a tally that was at the time a record.

In a recent interview with JRFU chairman Noriyuki Sakamoto, I raised the subject of Loamanu and his desire to play again in Japan and was told the union “is not in a position to stop him” returning.

When his ban was lifted, Loamanu admitted he had made an error of judgment. He hopes those who have previously blocked his return have also mellowed over the years.

Rich Freeman writes about rugby for Kyodo News and can be heard talking about it during Sunwolves’ home games.