Rugby Union: Kiwi exile takes role as Japan's rising son

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New Zealander Andy McCormick, says that his adopted country can progress to the quarter-finals of the World Cup. By Chris Hewett

IT SEEMS a trifle odd, to say the very least, that the most lightweight forwards in the international game should come from the country that gave sumo to the world. In traditional Japanese wrestling, only the soles of the feet are permitted to be in contact with the ground. Traditional Japanese scrummaging is quite different, in the sense that the soles of the feet tend to hang in mid-air, along with every other part of the body. As any frustrated half-back will confirm, you see precious little of the ball when your pack performs like a helicopter rather than a combine harvester.

So how about trying a little sporting cross-pollination in time for the Rugby World Cup? Why not lure a couple of 26-stoners away from their ceremonial dohyos and on to the rugby pitch, where they could surely bring to bear a little kantosho (fighting spirit) and ginosho (technique) in the national interest?

Mr Andrew McCormick, an economy-sized centre from Christchurch, New Zealand, has the answer: "Aw mate, those sumo guys are big, but they can't move. When they try to run they go round in circles."

Which probably explains why McCormick, the 32-year-old son of the great All Black full-back Fergie McCormick, has been preferred to a more celebrated and infinitely larger member of the yokozuna class as captain of Japan's 30-man party for the forthcoming squabble over the Webb Ellis Trophy. He is blond, blue-eyed and about as Japanese as a side of roast lamb, but he by no means stands out in the Asian crowd. There is a Rob Gordon in the squad and a Greg Smith too, not to mention a couple of more familiar Kiwis who just happened to wear the silver fern in the last World Cup final four years ago, Graeme Bachop and Jamie Joseph.

After their 145-point meltdown against the New Zealanders in Bloemfontein four years ago - a game in which Joseph opposed them for all but 16 minutes - the Japanese have transformed their rugby into a melting pot.

According to Seiji Hirao, a disconcertingly youthful national coach, that deeply unpleasant All Black experience was the catalyst for a root- and-branch reconstruction of the game in his country. "It came as a shock to the team and to the union," he admitted on arrival in England on Wednesday night. "Looking back, it provided us with the opportunity we needed to shake up our organisation and review the way we were attempting to develop the Test side. It was an important moment, yes. There were vital decisions to be made."

Comfortably the most significant of which was to throw a closed game wide open and embrace the New Zealand exiles who had made their homes in Tokyo and Kyoto and made careers for themselves with the multi-national companies who effectively drive the domestic game in Japan: Toshiba (McCormick and Gordon), Sunix (Bachop and Joseph) and Toyota (Smith).

"I'd be lying if I said the New Zealand influence hasn't improved things, especially up front," says McCormick. "But the whole structure of the game in Japan has been strengthened. Now we're doing the right things in the right places and, while we're not reading too much into our victory in this year's Pacific Rim tournament, the degree of expectation within the squad is quite high."

McCormick, an All Black trialist in the early 1990s, still spends a month or so of each year back home in New Zealand's South Island, but to all intents and purposes he has emigrated.

"I left Canterbury in '92 to join Toshiba, partly for business reasons but mainly for the rugby. I was getting stale in New Zealand, going through the motions. I thought to myself: `I need a change, so I'll play overseas for a while and get it out of my system.' In a way, it's never left my system. I enjoy my life in Japan and I still love the rugby."

And with good reason. While baseball, professional soccer and, yes, good old sumo, command a large proportion of the Japanese sporting attention, rugby is in there battling for its share of the cake. Big club games - or, rather, big company games - habitually attract crowds of 30,000 plus, and when the top university sides join in the fray towards the end of each campaign, 50,000 gates are the rule rather than the exception. Should Japan go within touching distance of a World Cup quarter-final place, which both McCormick and Hirao say is a realistic target, even though they may privately believe otherwise, interest at home will surge once more.

First, though, they must navigate their way through the nearest thing to a group of death to be found in this World Cup. Samoa, Argentina and Graham Henry's increasingly bullish Welsh hosts are Japan's first-up opponents and, through his background in New Zealand rugby, McCormick is acutely aware of his countryman's extraordinary success in the Principality.

"I was never coached by Graham, but all of us were aware of his achievements as he moved up through the ranks," McCormick said. "His record with Auckland was outstanding but, then, it's pretty hard to argue with anything in his track record. Graham doesn't lose many. He's very, very capable."

Is it conceivable that Japan, who can point to only one victory from nine matches in World Cup finals dating back to 1987, might stand firm against the Welsh before a full house at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday week?

"Well, it will be our hardest pool match, for sure," acknowledged the captain. "Which is why the opening game against the Samoans at Wrexham is taking all our focus. That's the one we have to get right. We'll play a very fast game, as Japanese sides have traditionally done, but we'll compete up front too. If we get out of there with a win, we can start thinking about Wales.

"I happen to think you'll see a much more complete Japanese side than in previous tournaments. The improvements to our domestic programme mean that we are effectively full-time professionals now; not so long ago, you could train from March to January and play about six meaningful games, but the fixture list is much fuller these days. And then there is the training - short and sharp but extremely intense. We're a fit team."

And how about McCormick the outsider? Any problems with the Japanese rugby public welcoming his captaincy with open criticism rather than open arms? "I dare say I'll always get the odd bit of stick in some sushi bar or other, but I honestly don't think it's an issue. The way the Japanese think now, they pick the best available person for the job."

They obviously think that Fergie's boy, among the eight most-capped players in the squad, is the main man. If he has anything of his dad about him - Fergie once caused serious ructions in South Africa by publicly rearranging the features of the Transvaal wing Sid Nomis with a strategically placed elbow - perhaps the sumo warriors really are surplus to requirements.