"From Toyota to Invercargill: A Rugby Journey"

On May 16th, three players, lock Issa Yamakawa, flanker Akito Okui, and wing Kota Oyabu, left Japan and are now staying in Invercargill. While living together, Oyabu plays for Pirates Old Boys, and Yamakawa and Okui play for Invercargill Blues. 

All three have already played in several matches, with Oyabu getting the full experience of the harsh weather in New Zealand on his very first appearance for the Pirates Old Boys.

 "It was a match with typhoon-like wind and rain, something I had never experienced in Japan. In Japan, schools would be closed in such weather (laughs). The field was like a riverbank, and my boots were buried in mud. It was freezing cold, and the wind made the ball drift forward. I was shocked.” Although New Zealand's weather will get colder from now on, he confidently said, "It won't get worse than that."

Yamakawa, who has been a lock since university, is now fixed as a No. 8 for the Blues, gaining experience in a new position. "At first, I thought I would play as a lock here, but I found out I was No. 8 when the team was announced the day before the match." In his new position, the biggest difference is the scrum. He gradually got used to it with tips from Okui, who has experience playing in the position. His new position gave him more opportunities to carry the ball in attack.

"As a lock, I usually position myself inside, but as No. 8, I often position myself out wide. It was a bit weird to carry the ball in a wide channel at first.” From the back of the scrum, the view is different. "As a lock, you only see the front row's faces, but as No. 8, you see the other team’s backs. Also, the air is much fresher (laughs)." 

Okui has been playing at No. 7. In a match against Oyabu's team, he injured his ankle early on and had to leave the field. He has been playing in subsequent matches, strapping his ankle by himself.

"I learned how to strap my ankle in a university class, but I never thought it would come in handy here (laughs)." After joining Toyota from Teikyo University this spring, he had been away from the field due to an injury, but now he is fully enjoying the games. "At this level, it's more about physical contact than skill. Instead of dodging and hitting, they come at you full force. For me, it's more fun to have full contact. It’s fun to just go out and play. “ 

All three are enjoying their weekly game time. Their club teams are five minutes away by car. On Mondays and Wednesdays, they participate in the provincial representative team's training together. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, they head to their respective clubs' training sessions together, with Oyabu dropping off first and the other two heading to the Blues. They share chores and shopping, preparing meals together every night. They were initially surprised that a dozen eggs cost over 1,000 yen (=10NZD) but have gotten used to it. They prepare rice before training and cook meals like curry, ginger pork, and stir-fried vegetables. The kitchen is spacious enough for three people to work without feeling cramped. They have a nearby bento shop run by a Japanese owner for lunch from Tuesday to Thursday.

"I had heard about it from Asaoka, who came here last year. The restaurant makes miso soup and katsu-bowl for us, which we’re thankful for,” said Oyabu. On their days off, they go shopping in town or play golf with provincial team players. "We heard that the Starbucks in Invercargill is the southernmost store in the world, so we're planning to check it out," said Yamakawa.

Invercargill also has a unique connection. Stuart Harvey, the first player from New Zealand to join Toyota, lives here. He played with Oyabu's father, Masamitsu, during his time at Toyota. Now, the sons are playing for the same club. "I heard about this before coming here, and it's an amazing relationship,” said Oyabu. The club competition ends on July 13th, after which training for the Southland provincial team selection begins. All three are in the squad but are not guaranteed a spot on the team.

"I heard that players who play in America, France, and Europe are returning for the NPC season. I also heard that the younger brother of Patrick Tuipulotu (current All-Black) who was at Toyota, is moving here from Auckland for the opportunity to play at Super Rugby if he excels in NPC," said Oyabu. Competing with players aiming for Super Rugby and the All Blacks from the provincial team is an invaluable experience.

Oyabu, who is playing as a fullback, aims to develop skills that maximize his speed during his stay. "Many players in New Zealand have good fundamental skills, so I want to absorb as much as I can to utilize my speed with passing and kicking skills."

Yamakawa aims to grow as a No. 8, as he said, “Being able to play multiple positions is an asset, so I want to showcase my strengths even in a new position.” Okui is focusing on improving his contact skills and his English. "Speaking English is important to become a leader. I want to learn something in terms of communication and return to Japan. I'm in my best form when playing rugby, so I'm really enjoying things now.” As New Zealand heads into winter, the passion for rugby keeps rising up.

*Last year, Hamdaha Tuiplotu, who came to Toyota Verblitz as a training member, is also aiming to represent Southland and is working hard in training. He is the younger brother of Patrick Tuiplotu, with whom he spent the 2021-22 season at Toyota Verblitz. 




  • 1000 / 1000