Matsushima scored five tries at the 2019 World Cup.
brave blossoms

World Cup star Matsushima set for 'once-in-a-lifetime experience' against Lions

The Clermont flyer is hoping Japan can pick up where they left off in 2019.

THE LAST TIME we saw Kotaro Matsushima playing Test rugby, he was cutting through defences for a haul of five tries during Japan’s thrilling surge to the 2019 World Cup quarter-finals on home soil.

The Brave Blossoms have been out of action ever since due to the pandemic, only beginning to shake off the cobwebs with a rusty victory over the Sunwolves two weekends ago in preparation for Saturday’s eagerly-anticipated clash with the British and Irish Lions.

Japan boss Jamie Joseph wasn’t able to call on Matsushima or Highlanders back row Kazuki Himeno for that win against the Sunwolves but both World Cup stars are now happily back in the group and ready for a special encounter with the Lions in Edinburgh.

“As a player, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said wing/fullback Matsushima yesterday on a Zoom call with Japanese journalists and a handful from Ireland and the UK.

“I can’t imagine I will have another chance to play the Lions so it will be a very important match for me. If we can get a win against them there may be more chances to play against the Lions, so this match will be a benchmark for the future of Japanese rugby.”

It might sound like a grand statement but Japan – despite being sidelined since 2019 – are one of the most exciting things about Test rugby, having taken that leap into the quarter-finals of the World Cup by downing Joe Schmidt’s Ireland and Gregor Townsend’s Scotland.

The hope is that Joseph and his brilliant assistant coach Tony Brown can lead them to similarly positive results at the 2023 World Cup in France. 

iain-henderson-garry-ringrose-and-jacob-stockdale-with-kotaro-matsushima Matsushima in action against Ireland at the World Cup. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

They kick back into life with this Lions clash and then a visit to Dublin to take on Ireland on Saturday 3 July and Matsushima is excited to be back with his Japanese team-mates after spending the season playing with Clermont in France.

Matsushima – who was born in South Africa to a Japanese mother and Zimbabwean father, then moved to Japan with his family as a child – has had something of a nomadic rugby experience.

He took up the sport as a teenager when returning briefly to South Africa while his father studied in the Eastern Cape, then went back to his native land again after secondary school to join the Sharks, who he played for twice in the Vodacom Cup in 2013.

But Japanese rugby had no intention of losing the rising star and he joined Suntory Sungoliath in 2014, the same year he made his Test debut for the Brave Blossoms. 

He was a starter at the 2015 World Cup, helping Japan to their famous victory over South Africa under Eddie Jones, while he had stints with Eastern Suburbs and the Melbourne Rebels in Australia, as well as playing in the Top League with Suntory and Super Rugby for the Sunwolves.

The move to Clermont last year has exposed him to high-level European rugby in the Top 14 and Champions Cup, including a defeat to Munster in the latter.

“I didn’t expect that I would play 27 games,” says Matsushima of his first season with ASM. “I was targeting 20 games, so it was good that I could play more than I expected.

kotaro-matsushima-is-tackled-by-yoann-huget The Japan star enjoyed his first season in France. Julien Poupart / INPHO Julien Poupart / INPHO / INPHO

“I think I improved a lot in the physicality. I became better as the season went on, so for the next season I would like to be better again.”

Matsushima reckons some of his fellow Japanese players might benefit from similar exposure to the physicality of competitions other than the Top League at home.

He understands that Japanese rugby still has major strides of improvement to make but he’s excited for this squad – which has a number of new faces, including former Munster wing Gerhard van den Heever – to get back up and running on Saturday.

“It’s an amazing opportunity for us to play against the Lions. All of us will be nervous but at the same time, it’s a new team so there is a lot of excitement.”

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