Hooker Ryusei Kato & Center Chihiro Matsuyama's Time in Oamaru

In their sixth and second years respectively, hooker Ryusei Kato and center Chihiro Matsuyama departed Japan at the end of May. They are currently staying in Oamaru, about an hour and a half from Dunedin, where they play for Valley Sports Club, a local rugby team. 

They live together and spend their weekday mornings at the local gym. Club trainings are held on weekday evenings. They also visit a public pool in the town to recover their bodies in the large jacuzzi. They enjoy engaging in casual conversations with the locals at the pool, as an opportunity to work on their English, which they call the “Weekly Jacuzzi English Lessons”. 

Initially, they were surprised by the different environment from what they were familiar with. The fields and facilities are unlike those in Japan. The balls are also worn out, making the surface slippery. After about three weeks, they have finally started to get used to it. Both have been starting in matches since they arrived, adjusting to their roles in the forward and back lines respectively. Kato commented, “When you explain things in English, you can't get the details through. We are adjusting the hooking and throwing process together little by little on the field”. 

Having played with foreign players at Toyota, they had some foundation. "I used to discuss line-out calls with Josh (Dickson). I was worried about my English before coming here, but it turned out to be okay."Matsuyama, playing at number 12, commented, "As a center, I want to control the forwards, but I can't communicate well and it doesn't go as planned. I need to level up my English so that I can speak up more spontaneously." They both aim to improve and adjust to the new setting through more experience. 

They are also inspired by their teammates, who aspire to reach higher levels in rugby while holding regular jobs. Recently, they played in a match where a 33-year-old number 8, who has been with Valley since he was 19, celebrated his 200th cap. "We were trailing in the first half due to penalties, but we got a pep talk at halftime. He was born and raised in Oamaru and has played for this club all his life. We were determined to win for him", said Kato. This pep talk led to a comeback victory in the second half, making them part of a memorable match.

Kato continues, “I’m getting a lot of inspiration here. It reminds me of why I play the game and the passion of putting your body on the line for the team. There's a lot of respect here”. The days spent in Oamaru, remind them of when they first started playing rugby.

Matsuyama, who is also versatile in the kitchen, was bewildered at the local supermarket. "What's different from Japan is that chicken and beef are almost the same price. I like chicken, but if the price is the same, I go for beef." Japanese players living abroad often struggle with the lack of thinly sliced meat available at supermarkets. They have to cut blocks of meat by themselves. Recently, they made Oyako-don (chicken and egg rice bowl) with seasonings brought from Japan. "It tasted just like home” (Kato).

Kato's time abroad is also a new challenge for the team. Previously, it was young players who had just joined the team who went abroad. Kato, at age 27, thought, "There probably won't be any chances like this in the future.” when the opportunity arose. "At first, I was hesitant." His first son had just been born a year ago, and going abroad would place a burden on his family. However, his parents and wife encouraged him to go. Considering Kato’s circumstances, the Valley Sports Club arranged a family-friendly flat for when his family visits. "My teammates said they will give me get baby beds and strollers they no longer need." He appreciates the kindness of his teammates. 

Also, seeing things from the perspective of having a family while being abroad reveals new insights. Kato left Japan the day after his son's first birthday. He currently video call his family in the morning, noon, and night, but he eagerly awaits the day he can see his son in person. "I hope this will pave the way for players with families to go abroad. My wife is also looking forward to coming here," he said. He knows all the baby shops in town in preparation for his family's visit.

Matsuyama, who jokingly says, "I will work hard as the second son of the Kato family (laughs)," has goals outside of rugby. "NZ Toyota lent us a Highlander, and it's spacious and comfortable. I want to own a Highlander in the near future." For now, they commute to the grounds in their favorite Toyota car. 

The North Otago regional tournament, where they live, started in April. The team has qualified for the finals, and the matches will continue until mid-July. After the regional tournament, the selection for the North Otago representative team will begin. Both of them are on the squad, and if selected, their return to Japan will be extended until the end of October. 

"I want to grow mentally and physically, and come back stronger to contribute to the team next season" (Kato). "I'm getting enough playtime to improve myself, and I hope to be useful in bridging the gap between Japanese and foreign players when I return" (Matsuyama). With the support of their new teammates in Oamaru, they seem poised to accelerate their progress.

*On this day, before training, they also visited a local high school to conduct rugby coaching.




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