Tanaka puts Japan on stage for Highlanders
Halfback Fumiaki Tanaka created history by becoming the first Japanese player to sign with a Super Rugby franchise when he added his ink to a Highlanders contract towards the end of last year.
His test team-mate, Shota Horie, may have beaten him to the punch in becoming the first player to run out in a game, with the Melbourne Rebels playing the ACT Brumbies last night, but there will certainly be a lot of eyes on Tanaka if he makes an appearance in the Highlanders' season opener against the Chiefs next Friday.
Highlanders marketing manager Doug McSweeney said interest in the Panasonic Wild Knights and Otago halfback had been intense.
Two Japanese television networks are following Tanaka's progress, including one which will follow him around for three weeks for a documentary.
"It's massive. It's big. There have been quite a few requests. We had the New York Times talking with him last week for their global online edition. It's out there," McSweeney said.
Tanaka was a cult hero for Otago in last year's NPC, impressing with his speed of foot and pass and a toughness which belies his 1.65-metre, 75-kilogram frame.
After a preseason game against the Stags in Balclutha last year, The Southland Times described Tanaka standing at a lineout as being like a five-ounce glass sitting next to a jug of beer.
He was the smallest player at the 2011 Rugby World Cup and is understood to be the smallest player to have ever been involved in Super Rugby.
Tanaka is 4cm shorter and 7kg lighter than All Black halfback and Highlanders team-mate Aaron Smith, but the pair offer a similar pacy skill set and it's something the Highlanders will obviously try to use to their benefit this season.
"I think, if anything, my size is an advantage," Tanaka said last year.
"Both Tony Brown [Otago coach] and Jamie [Joseph] say my size is not something that worries them. On the contrary. I know the opposition are going to hunt me, attack me and try to crush me, but that can create extra space if I get the ball away quickly.
"Initially, when I started in the ITM Cup, I found it physically intense, but I realised the important thing was that [if] I understood the game and how it was being played and what was required of me, then I could do my job properly."
Tanaka, who has played 31 times since 2008 for Japan's Brave Blossoms, is big news at home.
The Highlanders haven't yet worked out how they can cash in on his fame, although there has been talk about offering an overseas membership option.
"Adidas might sell a few more jerseys with Tanaka on the back this season," McSweeney said.
The franchise has arranged permission from Tanaka's Japanese club to have him write a diary in Japanese for the Highlanders website.
Tanaka takes his role as a trailblazer for Japanese rugby very seriously.
"I feel so honoured to be becoming Japan's first Super Rugby player," he said last year.
"I hope to improve at the higher levels of rugby and bring those skills back to Panasonic.
"I want to play as many games as possible and show the world what Japanese rugby players are capable of. I want to believe there is nothing I can't accomplish."
He has impressed his team-mates with his fearless attitude and his approach to the game.
Highlanders No 10 Lima Sopoaga has enjoyed playing outside the Super Rugby rookie during the preseason.
"He's a real good dude. I don't know how he understands any of what we are doing, but he's got a really smart rugby brain," Sopoaga said this week. "He's courageous as anything. He wouldn't weigh much more than 68kg on a good day, I'd assume, but he's into everything. He's really vocal out there and just takes his chance when he gets it."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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