Matsushima Kōtarō: Brave Blossoms Try Leader Ready to Shine for Japan at Rugby World CupSports
A World-Class Player
In the summer of 2020, Matsushima Kōtarō boarded a flight from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport bound for France to play for ASM Clermont Auvergne in the Top 14, the country’s premier professional rugby union club competition and one of Europe’s leading leagues. Matsushima would spend two years competing against some of the best players in France—and the world—in the country that would host the 2023 Rugby World Cup. He returned to Japan in 2022 and currently plays for Tokyo Sungoliath of League One. He made a deep impression during his time in France, becoming a household name with his exploits on the pitch.
At the 2019 Rugby World Cup, Matsushima played right wing in all of Japan’s matches. In the opener against Russia, he scored a hat-trick of tries, the first by a Japanese player at the World Cup, helping spur the team on to the knockout stage. Combined with his try against the United States at the 2015 tournament in England, the treble against Russia tied him with Kutsuki Eiji’s all-time record of four set 28 years earlier. Matsushima would topple Kutsuki’s mark, scoring a try each against Samoa and Scotland to bring the new record to six. Head coach Jamie Joseph declared Matsushima along with left winger Fukuoka Kenki, who scored four tries, the “double Ferraris” that drove the team.
Matsushima was born in South Africa in 1993 to a Zimbabwean father and a Japanese mother. Shuttling between Japan and South Africa during his childhood, he began playing rugby in junior high school. He spent his high school years in Japan at rugby powerhouse Tōin Gakuen, winning the national title with the team in his final year. In the semi-final match of the national tournament, Matsushima demonstrated his explosive speed against Osaka Korean High School with a history-making run. He had been a driving force throughout the match, and with his team clinging to a six-point lead 27 minutes into the second half, he recovered a turnover near the Tōin Gakuen goal line and carried it 100 meters for a try.
After graduating from high school, Matsushima was courted by Japan’s top university rugby teams. In the end, though, he chose to head to South Africa to train at the academy of the rugby union team the Sharks. During his time there, he grew both physically and mentally while also gaining valuable experience in one of the leading rugby nations at an age when Japanese youth players start to fall behind their peers in other countries. At the end of those two years, the formerly slender Matsushima known for his graceful running style had transformed himself into a tough, powerful runner.
Japan’s Defeat of South Africa
When Matsushima was 19, he played for a regional team in South Africa and was invited to attend the training camp of the South Africa National Under-20 Rugby Team. Although a number of possibilities were open to Matsushima in the country, then national team head coach Eddie Jones convinced him to return to Japan. Matsushima, arrived back in the country in 2013 and made his debut with the Brave Blossoms the following year.
At the 2015 Rugby World Cup, he had a hand in the dramatic defeat of South Africa, executing a pivotal tackle to prevent a try that would have given the Springboks the lead. Four years later in Japan, he helped lead the Japanese squad into the quarterfinals of the competition for the first time in team history.
In 2020, Matsushima moved to Clermont in France’s Top 14 to put himself at “a higher level” in the sport. When play was suspended due to COVID-19, he focused on honing his physical and mental skills and worked to improve his running style, choosing to stay in Europe for its aggressive style of play and larger players.
The toughness he developed during his two years in France was on display when Japan met Tonga in a World Cup warm-up match on July 29, 2023, in Osaka. With Japan leading by five points near the end of the match, Matsushima took a hard hit to the solar plexus as he passed the ball to wing Semisi Masirewa. Tonga intercepted Masirewa’s pass intended for teammate Dylan Riley, setting up a possible upset with a try and conversion. Matsushima was still feeling the effects of the tackle but got to his feet and chased down the Tongan player, denying the visitors a try and chance to snatch victory from Japan.
Recalling the play, Matsushima says, “When I heard the cry of the crowd, I didn’t know what had happened at first. Then I saw the Tongan player running at full speed and I knew that I was the only one who could stop him. I reacted instinctively.”
Feel for the Game
In the wake of this game-saving performance, head coach Jamie Joseph showed his confidence in Matsushima by announcing him as the starting full back for the Brave Blossoms at the Rugby World Cup.
Since his days as a high school player, Matsushima has felt that the position of full back allows him to best utilize his skills. “I suppose it’s because I have an innate sense of which way to run,” says Matsushima, “even when I am being attacked from both the left and the right.”
Matsushima has further sharpened his match instincts during his two years playing in France, and he will be eager to demonstrate his skills at the World Cup.
France has held a special interest for Matsushima since he was a youth player, making it the one place other than Japan where Matsushima wanted to play. In an interview from when he was 20, prior to being selected for the Japanese national team, he explained his reasons: “ I traveled to France with the Japan National High School squad in my second year. When there, I sensed that the French players in our age group saw the game differently. More than physical strength or size or speed, the most basic difference was their thinking on the pitch. I realized that I would have to play rugby abroad if I wanted to compete against them.”
At the conclusion of the 2019 World Cup in Japan, Matsushima set the goal of being named MVP at the next tournament, saying, “That’s the kind of player I’m aiming to be.” He has established himself as a seasoned and indispensable player for Japan, and he aims to bring home the trophy in his third appearance at the Rugby World Cup.
(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Matsushima Kōtarō speeds past Fijian players in a test match on August 5, 2023, in Tokyo. © Jiji.)