Japan remember their 'Mr Rugby' - The man who paved the way for 2019 success

Seiji Hirao played in three World Cups and saw a fourth as Japan's head coach. He was also a superstar in his home country.

Japan remember their 'Mr Rugby' - The man who paved the way for 2019 success

Seiji Hirao played in three World Cups and saw a fourth as Japan's head coach. He was also a superstar in his home country.

Labelled Mr Rugby by the Japan Times newspaper, he was a skillful out-half-cum-centre and he had the looks to match.

Rugby was riding the crest of a wave in the Asian country at the height of his career in the 1980s and early '90s but that was on the club scene where wealthy corporate backers poured money into their chosen pet projects. The Brave Blossoms never got swept along by the current.

Hirao was the game's North Star who played 35 times for Japan across a thirteen-year period but the opposition was rarely elite. Three of his caps came against national university sides. All were lost, as was another with Oxford University in Tokyo in 1988.

Oxford were no mugs. They had three Australian internationals in their ranks that day, including Brian Smith who also played out-half for Ireland. His half-back partner was David Kirk who had lifted the Webb Ellis Cup for New Zealand a year earlier.

Not a bad outfit, then, but losing to a bunch of students still wasn't a good look. Another player in the visiting side was an Irishman by the name of Mark Egan who went on to become World Rugby's head of development and performance.

Both Egan and Hirao toiled in their own way to lift standards in different outposts but neither could have foreseen a situation over 30 years after that match in which Japan would be taking the scalps of Six Nations sides at a World Cup they were hosting and preparing for a quarter-final against the Springboks. But here they are.

The great pity is that Hirao isn't around to experience it. Diagnosed with bile duct cancer in 2015, he passed away just over a year later. Sunday, when Japan face South Africa in Tokyo, will just happen to be the third anniversary of his passing.

"I'm a bit emotional talking about Hirao,” said Japan's scrum coach Shin Hasegawa.

He was the one who picked me for the national team, he was the one who played me. We have a game on a special day. I hope we can pay him back.

Hirao was in elementary school, warming the bench at a baseball game one day, when he saw another group playing rugby and decided that it looked more fun. People who remember him on the pitch speak of a man who played the game with a smile on his face.

His CV is astonishing, starting with his dual role of captain and star player with an unfashionable state school from Kyoto, Fushimi High School, which beat all the leading private schools to win the coveted national schools competition.

His stint studying at Doshina University brought three championships and selection with the national team at the age of 19. He was the youngest to have ever been afforded the honour and then he took everyone by surprise by taking a year out in the UK.

Hirao played for Richmond whilst in London and he then won seven straight national championships as a player with Kobelco Steelers. Further success followed for the club when he assumed the role of coach some years later.

Japan didn't win any games under his watch at the 1999 World Cup - they had actually won just one across all of their tournament appearances prior to 2015 - but Hasegawa retains fond memories of the experience and his old coach 20 years on.

Japanese players celebrate beating Scotland to top their group.
Japanese players celebrate beating Scotland to top their group.

"The best memory is receiving a letter in my room a day before our opener. It wasn't that long but had things that encouraged me and made me feel I need to fight for this man. I remember heading into the game with a good motivation.

I asked him one time why I was chosen and he said, 'of course, scrum', so I really focused on it. He really kept his eyes on me and was a great coach.

Hirao was passionate about the need to bring the World Cup to Japan. He spoke with certainty about how having the tournament here would serve to raise not just the standard of the national team but the game's very standing in a nation saturated by choice of sports.

How right he was on both accounts.

“The success of Rugby World Cup 2019 and the Japan national team was Hirao's dream,” his family said in a statement at the time of his passing. “It was because of all the support Seiji Hirao had that he was able to lead a fruitful life to the very end.”

Whatever happens next, Japan have come a long way from Oxford.

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