Japan Rugby Club talks exclusively to Sunwolves and NTT Communications Shining Arcs centre Shane Gates on life with Japan, the Sunwolves and potentially representing the Brave Blossoms at Rugby World Cup 2019.
“It’s been the best thing I’ve probably ever done,” remarks Sunwolves centre Shane Gates on his decision to move to Japan to play rugby. The 26-year-old has not looked back since he joined NTT Communications Shining Arcs in the Top League from Southern Kings almost three years ago. “Since I’ve come to Japan, my rugby has got better. I feel like my game has improved, my skill level has improved.”
The South African centre will not be playing any rugby for the next few months though as he recovers from a leg fracture sustained with the Sunwolves, who he joined for the 2019 Super Rugby season, becoming the 101th different player to represent the Japanese franchise.
The opportunity to play with Sunwolves would likely not have arisen had Gates stayed in South Africa with the Kings. It was with the Port Elizabeth-based franchise where he was given the vice-captaincy in 2016 Super Rugby, just months before joining NTT in Japan.
“I’d been at Kings for around five-and-a-half years and I didn’t really see myself going any further or reaching any further heights, so I just opened myself up to a new experience and new challenge. I never though Japan would be an option as I thought that all the big famous international rugby players come to Japan.”
“My agent got back to me and told me about that the non-international player that they can field, which means I’d have to sign full time instead of just signing part time and obviously I was open to that. I’ve heard such things about Japan from almost every person I’d spoken to.”
“They (my agent) told me that a club called NTT were interested and that they played in the Top League. And I couldn’t believe it. I just wanted new opportunities and the chance to play international rugby, whether that be for Japan or South Africa. I just felt at five-and-a-half years at the Kings I’d never really felt I was making much progress, so I thought why not try a new opportunity and experience something new.”
July will mark three years since Gates came to Japan, which will see him in course qualify to represent Japan at international level through residency. With the application to represent the Brave Blossoms currently under review by the IRB, Gates could even be in line for a shock place at Rugby World Cup 2019.
“It’ll be really special to be a part of it, especially in Japan, having come here and Japan having given me so much. It would be unbelievable, and a massive dream come true. The injury puts a few more speed bumps in the road but doesn’t mean I’m not ready.”
“I would love to qualify for a passport for Japan, so I’d like to do my residency and nationality over here. So that would be another two years after Rugby World Cup so 2020/21 so I’d like to become a resident of japan and hopefully that’ll open some doors to other opportunities. It’s given me everything I need not just on the rugby field but holistically it’s been amazing.”
The number of overseas-born players in the Japan squad sparked debate among Japanese media at RWC 2007 and RWC 2011 when the Brave Blossoms were under the leadership of John Kirwan. With almost half of Japan’s Rugby World Cup squad not born in Japan, coupled with the increasing popularity and coverage of the sport domestically, similar discussions are likely to be provoked in the lead-up to the tournament. However, Gates says that the non-Japanese born players are worthy of their places in the team.
“I’m a big believer in giving a lot of people opportunities. I don’t want to deny one person an opportunity over another, but I believe that every player who can get the opportunity to play international rugby and serves according to the laws set out by the IRB (International Rugby Board), I don’t see why a reason why they shouldn’t be given that opportunity.”
“If a player has followed the rules and I don’t see an issue. There are some guys that aren’t Japanese by their appearance or culture but they’ve spent a long time in japan and they’ve served under the rules of this country for a long time. In that regard, they deserve their place”
It is not just the Japan national team that has come under scrutiny; the Sunwolves have also come under fire for the lack of ‘Japanese’ players in their squad so far this season. Gates sees the array of nationalities in the squad as a positive rather than a negative though.
“We spoke about that before the beginning of the season. We’ve got so many cultures here that just come together a month before one of the biggest competitions in the world. Instead of using these sorts of things to our disadvantage, let’s just use it as an advantage. Our backs are always going to be against the wall in terms of travel, preparation, time we had to prepare, logistically.”
“There’s a lot of cultures. Guys that have made sacrifices and have left their families behind whatever country they’ve come from to grab an opportunity. These men have left their wives, and some have recently just had kids and had to leave them. If you really sit to think about it, it’s not easy leaving your young one behind and watching them grow up on a phone screen. I’ve gotten closer to the guys because of that.”
With the injury likely to side-line Gates for the remainder of the season, the Port Elizabeth-born man still sees this season with the Sunwolves as a massive positive in his career.
“I see rugby differently now. It’s been life changing, eye-opening, I’ve just learned so much. Everyone has their own approach to things and the same with the coaching. I’ve enjoyed Scott Hansen, Tony Brown, all the guys that have been involved. Each one brings their unique dimension to the table and you learn something small from each of one of those guys every day. And they work so well as a unit.”
“We’ve had to adjust quickly but I feel like the coaches have given us so much confidence and given us that freedom to express ourselves. Its been really special to be a part of even though it’s been a short time.”
Adjusting quickly is something that Gates had to do when he first moved to Japan to join NTT, who are based on the eastern peripheries of Tokyo.
“When I arrived, things were very confusing and there was a lot to take in. Being so close to Tokyo and being in quite a busy area in Shin-Urayasu, a lot of things are happening. That took a little bit of adjusting. And I had some really good people around me at the club in the town that had done it before, so they just helped me every single step along the way and I didn’t really feel like a stranger from the first day that I got there.”
Speaking with Gates, he comes across as one of the humblest rugby players we have ever had the pleasure to encounter. Not all players have adapted as well to life in Japan as he has, which can be attributed in most part to his adventurous and courageous attitude to life.
“Since I have come to Japan, I’ve done more travelling. Then the more travelling I’ve done, the more infectious it’s become. Every opportunity I get, I try to get to a new place. I try to discover something new.”
“Learning a new culture and immersing yourself into a different culture has been unreal. Getting to know the Japanese people, how kind and generous they are has been really nice.”
“I’ve had a couple of big losses over here and after spending some time with Japanese people, they’ve really picked me up and make you feel like rugby isn’t everything. There are bigger things out there. There are kids looking up to you. There are people that are devoting a lot of time to see you and the team. You just realise that’s so much bigger than rugby.”