Having rediscovered his motivation for the game while playing club rugby in France, Japan star Kotaro Matsushima is ready to set Rugby World Cup 2023 alight on his return to the country.
Matsushima, preparing for his third tournament, appeared to have the world at his feet four years ago as his five tries – including a first-ever Rugby World Cup hat-trick by a Japanese player – helped to propel the Brave Blossoms to an historic quarter-final place on home soil.
Japan coach Jamie Joseph labelled Matsushima a ‘Ferrari’ of his team during RWC 2019, but in the aftermath of the tournament the skilful back found it hard to stay driven.
That was until he received an offer from Top 14 powerhouse ASM Clermont Auvergne in 2020, moving to Europe to play two seasons at Stade Marcel Michelin.
“While I was playing matches at different levels in France, I felt my motivation and desire to play for Japan growing [again],” Matsushima said.
His exploits in the famous yellow jersey of Clermont led to him being nominated for the EPCR European Player of the Year award in 2021, having scored four tries during that season’s Champions Cup.
Now back on French soil with Japan, Matsushima is hopeful he can “show some exciting and entertaining rugby” for those who supported him during his Top 14 adventure.
He is confident too, as he prepares for the Brave Blossoms’ opening Pool D fixture against Chile on Sunday, that he is a better player now than he was at the last two Rugby World Cups.
Matsushima played as a winger in both but has arrived back in France as a full-back, helping to support the squad’s stock of wide players, three of whom – Jone Naikabula, Semisi Masirewa and Siosaia Fifita – will be appearing at their first Rugby World Cup.
“I can display myself better at full-back,” Matsushima said. “I have more opportunities to play with the ball and it frees me up to do what I think is best at that moment, if I can communicate that with my team-mates.
“I would like to play smart using kicks, for example, as I am expecting to play with the ball more.”
Matsushima has enjoyed a fruitful 2023 so far, having returned to Tokyo Sungoliath and helped the club to the Japan Rugby League One semi-finals before winning his 50th test cap for the Brave Blossoms in August.
He also turned 30 in February, but the full-back insists that has not slowed him down.
“Age doesn’t bother me at all,” Matsushima said. “I want to take this coming tournament and put all I have learned [into it].”
Matsushima is one of 13 players included in Joseph’s 33-player squad for RWC 2023 with previous tournament experience, meaning more than half of the group that arrived in Toulouse on 2 September are preparing for their first Rugby World Cup.
The team’s results during their five-match warm-up series in Japan in July and August, which were played in extremely hot weather, were erratic with four defeats and only one victory.
However, Matsushima looks on the bright side, insisting that the time spent together as a squad will prove invaluable and that performances have improved ahead of RWC 2023.
“It was so hot that we couldn’t do well in attacks in some parts, and we were playing those matches while doing very tough trainings, too,” he said.
“So, there were moments that we couldn’t move as much as we wanted or we had to during the game.
“In the recent training sessions [after the RWC 2023 squad was named], we played smoothly without making mistakes even in the high heat.
“Our connections and combinations are getting better. We can get much better.”
Following their meeting with Chile at Stadium de Toulouse on Sunday, Japan will face England, Samoa and Argentina in what looks to be one of the most competitive pools in the tournament.
Matsushima, for one, is determined to make sure the Brave Blossoms reach the knockout stages for a second successive Rugby World Cup. The Ferrari is ready to purr again.