Down but not out
The world's top try-scorer, Daisuke Ohata, is determined to come back from injury and represent Japan again. Alvin Sallay catches up with the speedy winger
Like all great wingers, Daisuke Ohata always looks ahead - and in this case, to the future when he can get back to what he does best: scoring tries.
Unfortunately for Japan, the fleet-footed Ohata won't quite be able to pull that off when the inaugural HSBC Asian Five Nations kicks off in April.
Ohata, the world record holder of tries scored in test rugby - 69 - is still recovering from the injury which saw him cruelly miss out on playing at last year's World Cup in France. He is still sidelined and hasn't touched a rugby ball competitively for Japan since playing in the Asian World Cup qualifiers, which were held in Hong Kong in November 2006.
'These past few months have been really frustrating for me,' says Ohata. 'I came back from injury to my right leg just before the World Cup but then injured my left leg in a practice game against Portugal. It ruled me out of the World Cup and I was bitterly disappointed.'
Ohata ruptured his right Achilles tendon in January 2007 but recovered and was called up by new Japan coach, former All Black winger John Kirwan, in August for a practice game against World Cup-bound Portugal. Fate handed Ohata a cruel deal, when he limped off the field after ripping his left Achilles tendon.
At 32, Ohata is now left dreaming for the moment when he can get back on the field. A two-time World Cup representative, in 1999 and 2003, he is aware time is running out on an illustrious career.
'I have scored 69 tries and hold the world record. But right now, the most important try for me will be the next one I score. I can't wait to get back and play for my country,' said Ohata during the launch for the Asian Five Nations this week.
Japan will take on Hong Kong, South Korea, the Arabian Gulf and Kazakhstan when the annual Asian Five Nations - which has replaced the former biennial Asian Rugby Football Tournament - is played on a round-robin format (two games at home and two away) to decide Asia's number one team.
It has been a title held mostly by Japan in recent years. And Ohata has played a role in this supremacy ever since he stormed into the limelight in 1996, when he made his international debut against arch-rivals South Korea. He made his mark that day by scoring three tries. He has not looked back.
Critics have scoffed that Ohata's try-scoring records cannot really match that of the person he overtook - Australian legend David Campese - as the quality of the opposition he played was vastly different.
Campese's 64 tries in 101 internationals was against the world's best teams, while Ohata's 69 tries in 58 tests was mostly against Asian opponents. The Japanese try-scoring machine once scored eight tries in a match against Taiwan. Only a third of his tries have been against leading nations.
'People say this was possible because I am in Asia, but I don't care because I'm proud of my achievement. I'm proud that an Asian player holds the world record,' Ohata points out.
He adds: 'I have played at the top level as well as the lower level. But it doesn't really matter whom you are playing against because you still have to take your chances and score your tries.'
Ohata overhauled the Wallaby great in 2006 when, against Georgia, he completed a hat-trick to reach the magical number of 65. Spotting a tiny gap in the Georgian defence, deep into injury time, Ohata used his God-given talent - his speed - to exploit the breach.
'There was a weird kind of pressure on me to do it, so I was happy to get it done. But in a way I feel a bit sorry about breaking Campese's record,' he said soon after his record feat.
The Kobe Steel winger's achievement was hailed in Japan. The Japanese Rugby Football Union rewarded Ohata with a gold striped version of the national jersey after the game - and a Y1 million (HK$72,000) bonus.
'I'm sure Campese did not expect his record to be broken by a Japanese player,' he smiled.
However, it is strange that Ohata has travelled the same path as Campese. At the Hong Kong Sevens in 1999, Ohata burst on to the scene and caught the eye with a stunning display which earned him the Best and Fairest Player award, an honour Campese had won previously.
'I think I played about four times at the Hong Kong Sevens. It is a great tournament,' said Ohata, who took up rugby in elementary school in Osaka, encouraged by his father, also a former high school rugby player.
Ohata extended his try-record to 69 in Hong Kong two years ago when the Asian Rugby Football Tournament was switched from Sri Lanka to this city due to security concerns in the island nation.
'I remember scoring a try in the first match against Hong Kong and then a hat-trick against Korea. But if you ask me which was my most memorable try, I would have to say it will be the next one I score,' he laughs.
Asian rivals, Hong Kong included, will breathe a sigh of relief that Ohata will not be in the mix when the Asian Five Nations gets under way in April. Hong Kong will travel to Japan to take on the reigning Asian champions on May 17.
'I remember the last time we played against him, in 2006. He scored a great try collecting the ball on the halfway line and then he gassed our wing and fullback. It showed his speed,' recounts Hong Kong international Andrew Chambers.
Chambers is a winger, too. But on that day, he was playing on the side opposite to Ohata.
'I was very happy to be playing on the opposite wing and not marking him,' smiled Chambers.
While still not 100 per cent fit, Ohata is determined to make a comeback.
'I'm 32 now, but I still want to play rugby and I have not thought about retiring. I want to score more tries, hopefully at the next World Cup, too,' said the Japanese winger, impatient for his Achilles tendon to mend.