Rugby

Kazuki Himeno turning into hero for Japan

Kyodo

Kazuki Himeno may be playing in his first Rugby World Cup, but the young star has become a dominant force in Japan’s campaign to reach the knockout stage for the first time.

The 25-year-old contributed to the Brave Blossoms’ 38-19 victory over Samoa on Saturday at City of Toyota Stadium, scoring Japan’s second try and helping the World Cup host claim its third-straight Pool A victory.

“It was my first World Cup try, and it feels so good,” Himeno said. “It was really a team effort. It was part of our tactics, so I feel like my teammates allowed me to score that try.”

Japan got a driving maul going following a lineout in Samoa’s 22, with Himeno pushing it toward the line before touching down in the 53rd minute.

While the four-try, bonus-point win itself was crucial if Japan is to reach the knockout stage for the first time, pulling off a near-perfect personal performance at the venue held special individual meaning for Himeno.

Born and raised in Aichi Prefecture, where the venue is located, Himeno currently plays for Toyota Verblitz, who are based in the central Japan city.

“I wanted to show my appreciation (to the locals) by pulling off my best possible performance,” he said. “It feels just amazing… knowing that people from the area stand beside me allowed me to go into the match relaxed.”

The 187-cm, 108-kg back-row forward has distinguished himself with his strength and physicality in all three pool matches, including Japan’s upset win over Ireland, which entered that match No. 2 in the world.

He has also proved an asset in defense, forcing a number of turnovers.

“I think that is my strength. I’ve always tried to turn a difficult situation into an opportunity, so I’m glad,” he said.

Himeno took up rugby in junior high school in Nagoya, and went on to play at Teikyo University before joining Verblitz. He showed his potential in his 2017 test debut, scoring a try against Australia in a 63-30 loss in Yokohama.

Now, head coach Jamie Joseph’s Brave Blossoms will face Scotland on Oct. 13 in Yokohama, with a chance for a quarterfinal spot on the line.

“I’m really tired after three matches, but what pushes me forward is the thought that I am playing at the World Cup,” Himeno said.

“We want to focus on playing our own rugby and we want to win.

“No, actually we will win. We want to go into the knockout stage with a good rhythm, having won all of our matches.”

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