Culture shock for Hurricanes loosie in Japan

TOBY ROBSON
Last updated 05:00 24/01/2013
Faifili Levave
Phil Reid/ FAIRFAX NZ
CULTURE SHOCK: ‘‘The gym didn’t allow any tattoos and they called Honda to find out if I was...from one of the gangs," says Faifili Levave.

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Mistaken for a gangster at his daughter's gymnastics class, yellow-carded four times, and frowned upon for trying to coach too much at training.

Faifili Levave's off-season stint in Japan had its share of trials and tribulations but the Hurricanes loose forward would not trade it for the world.

Wellington rugby was not thrilled when the 27-year-old activated an exit clause in his New Zealand Rugby Union contract last year.

Instead of pulling on a Lions jersey for the NPC, Levave took up a position with Honda and, in the process, gained some financial security for his young family.

Perhaps more importantly, he has arrived back with life experience and a renewed appreciation for New Zealand rugby.

Among the challenges Levave faced was trying to hide his extensive Polynesian tattoos from suspicious locals in the small town where he, partner Merita, and daughter Eve lived.

"My family and I enjoyed it but we found some aspects of the culture and lifestyle quite challenging," he said.

"We were in quite a small country town and with my tattoos - they weren't too fond of them.

"We enrolled my daughter in a [kids] gym class quite early on and had gone in, in a T-shirt and everything was fine but when we went back the next day they wanted to ban me from the complex. The gym didn't allow any tattoos and they called Honda to find out if I was yakuza [a Japanese organised crime syndicate], from one of the gangs."

And there some tricky adjustments on the field too, with referees taking a tough stance on the hard tackling that marked his season with the Hurricanes.

"Yeah, I got four yellow cards over there. I would tackle them in the chest but the height difference [made it look bad] and after one of them I got [issued with] controlled aggression, which meant I wasn't allowed to show too much aggression."

At training too, he said, he learned to resist the urge to pitch in with too many ideas, as the hierarchical culture meant the coaches could not be undermined.

Somewhat easier was picking up the Japanese language and enjoying the local cuisine, which he is already missing.

His contract was for only one season and though Levave said he would love go back to Japan, he said he was keener than ever to be in the New Zealand rugby environment.

"If they [the NZRU] allow it, I'd recommend it [to other players] but it also really made me appreciate Super Rugby," he said.

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"We get treated like kings over here. In Japan we were in two-star hotels when we travelled; the food wasn't the greatest for rugby.

"We'd all travel on the train, which was exciting but even checking in was difficult with the language barrier."

The Japanese players did not have their needs looked after as well and had virtually no media profile, he said.

"It just made me really want to come back and play some Super Rugby.

"I probably played eight or nine games but there were a lot of trainings and they were very long.

"I probably lost three or four kilograms in the heat but controlled that by staying on my Hurricanes gym programme, so it wasn't too bad."

Levave isn't alone in the Hurricanes in having an appreciation of Japanese rugby. First five-eighth Tusi Pisi is still playing with Suntory, while second five-eighth Tim Bateman spent several seasons with the West Red Sparks.

- The Dominion Post

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