First there was the Singapore Rugby 7s tournament, which minnows Canada won and in the process, shocked the world. The team even managed to beat perennial powerhouses New Zealand. Then the Super Rugby league came to town in March and will be back again in May when the Sunwolves take on the Sharks.
For rugby fans in Singapore, 2017 has been a great year of sporting action, made even better when the retired rugby star Andrew Mehrtens, whom has been dubbed “one of the greatest minds” to play the sport, paid a visit to Singapore in his capacity as a New Zealand Tourism ambassador.
We chatted separately with Mehrtens as well as young Sunwolves (who have adopted Singapore as its home) winger Kotaro Matsushima about the rise of rugby in Singapore.
Welcome to Singapore. How’s life after rugby like?
Well I’m working in the finance industry now at a bank in Australia. I eat far too many corporate lunches (laughs).
You’re still looking relatively trim though.
I don’t work out as much as I could! I do go on the treadmill and I’m back to playing tennis now. I also play a bit of squash. It’s different though. When I was in rugby we had two training sessions a day while it’s less intense now even though I work throughout the day.
What’s the difference like, playing competitively and working in finance?
Well, you get automatic feedback in rugby and can adjust accordingly. In the corporate life, you don’t get the daily or even weekly feedback so I found that a bit difficult at first. Also in any professional sport, you usually adhere to a schedule but after I retire, I had to manage my own time. But I’ve always loved finance; I’m good with numbers. And I love working with people. So I adapted quite quickly.
Talking about rugby, what do you think New Zealand has that makes it consistently produce the world’s best rugby players?
Firstly we’ve got space. Every school has a lot of grassy fields so naturally the kids play outside on the grass. And we’re a young country. Rugby was adopted early on by the Maori and New Zealanders, who liked the physical challenge of rugby.
We’re quite innovative too. We’re not steeped in tradition that makes it hard to change. So naturally we innovate and because we’re not hugely populated, people in diverse environments will try something that is not their core role.
So I think NZ rugby is at the forefront of adapting, assessing and seeing what we can do better. That’s the core strength of New Zealand, the willingness to learn and adapt.
And let me plug New Zealand as a tourism destination. It’s a great place. You’ve got the unspoiled natural beauty and the cosmopolitan cities. You need to come visit mate!
Most Asian countries tend to be on the small side. Do you think that will hinder an Asian country from making an impact on the global rugby stage?
Yes and no. I think what you’ve got to look at is the population. Rugby has always prided itself on giving roles to every body type from the short squat guy to the tall fast guy, etc.
Rugby 7s is a natural game for Asia due to its emphasis on a lighter body type. I mean look at Argentina. They’ve always had small agile players and now they’re emerging as a powerhouse. It’s about playing to your strengths.
What got you to play rugby?
I started playing soccer in school, but reflecting back on those days – I realised that I was not very good at it. My elementary school teacher then introduced me to rugby, which to me felt like tag. I immediately mastered the rules.
How did you join the Sunwolves?
I am gunning to represent Japan in the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Together with the team, we are using the Super Rugby as an opportunity to work on our strengths and weaknesses to be ready to compete in 2019. Super Rugby 2017 will challenge us and put us in a better position to play on the international stage against other world-class teams.
What’s your training like?
My training for Super Rugby 2017 currently is focused on speed and agility – to ensure that I am able quick on my feet during matches. I also do a lot of core training.
Do you have a rugby player you look up to?
There isn’t a rugby player in particular that I look up to. However, I do want to become someone the younger generation of rugby players look up to someday.
What’s the plan ahead?
I am proud and excited that the Rugby World Cup 2019 will be played in my home country. The Super Rugby 2017 season will test us physically and mentally, and will prepare us for the world-class teams we will face at the World Cup. The Sunwolves need to build on our toughness and this is something we will continue working on.