Luke Thompson is hoping the workload on his deer farm will allow him to keep track of Japan’s fortunes in Europe over the next two weeks.
Thompson hung up his boots for good last year having represented Japan at a fourth Rugby World Cup, in which the fan favourite helped the Brave Blossoms reach a first quarter-final.
Following one final season with Kintetsu Liners, the Thompson family returned to New Zealand and his days are now spent looking after around 300 red deer, rearing stags for antler velvet, on their plot near Christchurch.
He will be a keen observer as Japan take on the British and Irish Lions and Ireland on successive Saturdays, but with the matches kicking off at 02:00 and midnight respectively in New Zealand, he may not be awake to watch them live.
“That'll be very dependent on how the day's gone, I think,” he told World Rugby. “Both really awesome tests, so it would be nice to see them live, but we'll see how the days go.”
‘Huge kudos for Japanese rugby’
Having played his part in the journey that turned the Brave Blossoms into tournament contenders, Thompson is well aware of the significance of their current expedition.
“To play the Lions is unreal. I don't think the Japanese people probably really comprehend how big a game that is and how prestigious, and how fortunate they are to have that test,” he said.
Teammates and opponents, who were the best players that @g_leitch and Luke Thompson played the game with?@seanny202 found out in #BetweenTheLines.— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) June 16, 2020
Watch the full episode 👉 https://t.co/1lrxNE9JL9 pic.twitter.com/vT3Zuztltq
“I suppose the Lions traditionally are pretty limited to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, so it sort of flies under the radar of Asia. But, for the players, if you know rugby, you know the Lions and you know how big a deal that is. So that'll be huge for them.
“But, I think they'll be more worried about the fact they haven't played test match rugby in such a while.
“And, that physicality and that step-up to test match rugby is not easy, especially against this side. Warren Gatland sides are always notorious for being super physical, and they've all got plenty to prove.
“So, it's going to be a hell of a big challenge for all those players.”
“It's huge kudos for Japanese rugby,” Thompson added. “Just to get a test against Ireland back in the day would have been huge.
“But, to get one against the Lions and Ireland, it's huge for the fact that Japanese rugby would be considered and then to actually be there and do it is awesome for rugby in Asia, let alone Japan.”
The Brave Blossoms have not played a competitive test since Thompson’s final match in red-and-white, the Rugby World Cup 2019 quarter-final defeat to South Africa 20 months ago.
However, he is confident that coach Jamie Joseph has a squad good enough to beat both the Lions and Ireland — a team Japan famously defeated during their RWC 2019 campaign.
“Eddie Jones was responsible for changing the mindset of Japan, the expectations. Gone are the days where you try your hardest but lose, that can't be accepted,” Thompson said.
“They've got to be expecting to go out and play at a level that they can win, and why can't they? The Lions are there to be beaten.
“Every Japanese team, in the back of their mind, they're always underdogs, not truly, truly respected. So, this will be no different.
“The Lions, although they'll say they're fully up for it and what have you, at the back of their minds, they're already heading to South Africa and thinking about other things.
“And, the Irish, well, why wouldn't you want to beat them again? They're going to be without their Lions, there should be high expectations. Even though they'll be underdone, the Japan side, there's no reason why they can't pull out two good games in two weeks.
“That's what the expectation should be, and I imagine it will be.”
‘You’ve got to keep improving’
Should Japan board their flight home with two victories successfully stowed away, then one player who is likely to have played a pivotal role is Kazuki Himeno.
Back-row Himeno spent the recent Super Rugby season playing in New Zealand for the Highlanders, and Thompson wasn’t surprised to see him flourish.
“He's gone to another level playing in the Super Rugby competition, being a standout,” Thompson said.
“Physically he's been strong, work-rate wise, and probably added a few things to his game in terms of his work at the breakdown, jackling the ball or getting over the ball, trying to steal it.
“So, he's made a huge impact in New Zealand and hopefully he carries it on and he'll be game fit, match-hardened… ready to go.”
Himeno is part of a 36-man squad selected for the matches in Edinburgh and Dublin that features 19 players from RWC 2019, including captain Michael Leitch.
With 13 players hoping to make their test debut in Europe, Thompson believes Joseph has struck the right balance between experience and youth.
“There's some talented young guys, a couple of young half-backs that are pretty good players, a young flanker, young lock,” he said.
“There's some guys that have done their time in Japan, they've been there quite a long time and have become eligible. And, so that'll be exciting for them.
“It's a good balanced side and it's a good starter for the next World Cup.”
There would be no better way for Japan to begin that journey to France 2023 than by putting in two big performances at Murrayfield and the Aviva Stadium.
“You’ve got to keep growing the game and keep improving,” Thompson said. “Every team in the world is trying to get better, trying to improve and Japan is no different.
“So, a win would put rugby right back on centre stage in Japanese media and also [be] a big focus throughout the world if they're able to beat the Lions or Ireland or both.
“It's important that they do their best to make that happen.”