Ayumu Goromaru and Kensuke Hatakeyama were two of Japan’s stand-out players during Rugby World Cup 2015. A duo of Brave Blossoms that were in the same grade at university for Waseda, and who epitomised the Brave Blossoms spirit that captured the hearts of neutrals four years ago.
Fast forward to 2019 and neither stand a chance of making the Japan squad for this year’s Rugby World Cup, both failing to make a single appearance for the Brave Blossoms across the past two years. Just how did two of Japan’s stars from RWC 2015 see their chances of appearing in a home RWC all but disappear?
Goromaru did not necessarily need Rugby World Cup 2019, rather Rugby World Cup 2019 needed him. Japan needed a tried and tested hero to pin their hopes on, they needed a familiar face to market the tournament to non-rugby fans, they needed his profile to elevate the tournament.
Statues were dedicated to Goromaru, fans flocked to stadiums just to see him and television shows ultimately made him the face of rugby in Japan. It therefore seems inconceivable that the then poster boy of Japanese rugby would come to play no further part for the Brave Blossoms and that his final appearance for Japan would come in Gloucester in Japan’s final pool game of Rugby World Cup 2015.
His stock was at an all-time high at the end of 2015 following his 58 points at Japan’s most successful Rugby World Cup to date, amassing countless sponsorship deals and linked with several high-profile clubs overseas. Queensland Reds was his destination from 2016 though, opting not to link up with Sunwolves in their maiden Super Rugby season.
Goromaru's stint in Brisbane was short-lived. Fatigue took its toll and injury limited the full-back to just eight appearances in the 2016 Super Rugby season. This was a player who had now played rugby continuously for almost 12 months, following up RWC 2015 with a truncated Top League season, of which he was crowned top points scorer, before making the move down under.
Simultaneously, Kotaro Matsushima’s impressive performances at full-back for Suntory Sungoliath and the Brave Blossoms had seen the youngster stake claim to the number 15 shirt under Jamie Joseph, while Yu Tamura had consolidated himself as the Brave Blossoms’ kicker.
Goromaru was no longer on Jamie Joseph’s radar and only slipped further down the pecking order with a move to Toulon in autumn 2016, which saw him appear just five times for the TOP 14 outfit.
Hatekayama, like Goromaru, moved overseas in 2016, following up his second Rugby World Cup with a loan move to Newcastle Falcons after the conclusion of the 2015-16 Top League season, becoming just the second Japanese player after Kensuke Iwabuchi to feature in England’s top domestic rugby competition.
Many thought that the loan spell would materialise into a permanent move overseas. However, the prop returned to Suntory at the end of the campaign after making five Premiership appearances.
Unlike Goromaru, Hatekayama remained in contention briefly after his stint overseas, starting each of Japan’s June and November internationals in 2016, in what turned out to be his final appearances in the red and white jersey to date.
Realising that his time with Brave Blossoms was perhaps nearing its end, Hatekayama became increasingly focused on off-field activities, setting up the Japan Rugby Players Association (JRPA) in 2016 together with former Japan player Toshiaki Hirase.
The organisation aimed to improve communication between stakeholders in Japanese rugby, namely clubs and players, in addition to spreading the word of rugby and ensuring that players and clubs make contributions towards society.
Hatekayama was appointed chairman of the organisation in 2017, and is a large reason why he has featured so sparingly for club and country in the past 24 months.
While it is almost certain that Hatakeyama will play no part on the pitch at RWC 2019, it could be argued that his off-field efforts with the JRPA may provide a longer-lasting impact for players and Japanese rugby than the tournament itself.
Goromaru and Hatakeyama were hugely marketable prospects, a crucial factor that Sunwolves and the JRFU failed to spot. In the era of social media and mass sponsorship deals, it is no longer a player’s ability that should come into play when considering signings.
JRFU will regret not dedicating all resources at their disposal into keeping the duo in the country after RWC 2015. Stars such as Goromaru and Hatakeyama could have exponentially increased the domestic interest in the Sunwolves and had a trickle-down effect on the popularity of rugby in Japan ahead of a crucial few years for the sport in the country.