Himeno performed a haka with the Highlanders. All Blacks/YouTube

'I was more nervous about the haka than the game... It was a huge honour'

Japan star Kazuki Himeno is back on international duty after a season in New Zealand.

EVEN AS HIS star was rising with Teikyo University and it became clear he had a big future as a professional rugby player, it’s impossible that Kazuki Himeno could have imagined he would one day end up performing a haka before a game in New Zealand.

But that’s exactly what the 26-year-old Japan back row did last weekend as he lined up with his Highlanders team-mates ahead of the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman final against the Blues.

Unsurprisingly, Himeno made a huge success of his move to Kiwi rugby this year, shining in the back row for the Highlanders with the hard-carrying, accurate-jackaling, and intelligent style of play that made him a standout player in Japan’s run to the quarter-finals of the 2019 World Cup.

Now in Edinburgh with Japan ahead of their clash against the Lions on Saturday, Himeno admits he was nervous before the haka last weekend. Much like the rest of his input in New Zealand, he delivered it flawlessly.

“As a rugby player, it was amazing,” says Himeno. “I was more nervous about the haka than the game itself because the haka is a huge tradition in New Zealand rugby with a mystique. My team-mates told me all about its history.

“I was very nervous but after performing it, it really motivated me. It was a huge honour for me. We all practiced it as a team. I also did my own preparation, I watched videos because it has lots of detail and you need to perform it precisely. It was a great experience.”

Unfortunately for Himeno, the Highlanders were second best on the night at Eden Park a the Blues secured their first title since way back in the Carlos Spencer days of 2003

japan-v-scotland-pool-a-2019-rugby-world-cup-yokohama-stadium Himeno was excellent at the 2019 World Cup. Ashley Western Ashley Western

Himeno didn’t have long to lick his wounds as he rushed to get to the other side of the world to link up with his Japan team-mates ahead of their meeting with the Lions and a Test against Ireland in Dublin on 3 July.

From Auckland to Singapore to London and on to Edinburgh, Himeno got through the slog of long-haul travel and while he’s honest in saying it has left him tired, he’s excited to be back on Japan duty.

Jamie Joseph’s men haven’t played a Test since their stunning exploits at the World Cup, when they beat Ireland and Scotland, but a meeting with the Lions at Murrayfield certainly focuses the minds and Himeno is confident they can get up to speed quickly.

“It should be a good challenge for us to play against the Lions,” says the powerful back row. “As a rugby player, it’s a huge honour and I’d like to be at 100% so I need to have a clear focus this week in preparation.

“We have to prepare ourselves to win against the Lions, even with a short time to get ready. I had a good preparation in Super Rugby and I’m excited for the game. We all have the intention to win this game and we have that belief.

“We have lots of the same players as 2019 so the spirit has been carried on to this team. Our culture has a good mix of the traditional culture with things that the new players have brought in. If we can have a good balance, we will be in a good place.”

Japan will name their matchday 23 for the Lions clash at 1.30pm today, with a host of new faces hoping for debuts. Joseph included 13 uncapped players in his squad for this tour, although there are also 19 men in the group who were at the World Cup.

kazuki-himeno-takes-a-selfie-with-fans-after-the-game Himeno excellent with the Highlanders. Photosport / John Cowpland/INPHO Photosport / John Cowpland/INPHO / John Cowpland/INPHO

Some of them, like Kotaro Matsushima, who has been in Clermont for the past season, will hope to show they have improved as players since 2019 and Himeno is certainly in that bracket.

His successful season with the Highlanders has helped to boost his confidence.

“I learned to back myself,” says Himeno of his time in New Zealand. “My strengths are ball-carrying and jackals, and the defensive aspect is something that I had extra focus on.

“I improved mentally and physically. Mentally might be the biggest, there were lots of new learnings for me. When there were tough times, I had to figure that out.”

Himeno is hardly a veteran at the age of 26 and with 17 Test caps to his name but he has leadership qualities, having captained Toyota Verblitz in the Top League before, and is ready to resume his key role in this Japan team.

“Even though I’m still young, there are lots of younger players than me so I’d like to support them.”

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