Highlanders sign Japanese test star for 2021 Super Rugby Aotearoa season

The widespread change in personnel over the Super Rugby offseason has continued at the Highlanders, with the franchise signing Japan star Kazuko Himeno for the 2021 season.

The move was announced by his Top League club Toyota Verblitz on Monday, meaning the 26-year-old loose forward will join Brave Blossoms assistant coach Tony Brown – who is also Highlanders assistant and is tipped to take the vacant head coach role – in Dunedin next year.

Toyota, the club that signed former All Blacks captain Kieran Read and ex-All Blacks coach Steve Hansen last year, have also recruited Wallabies skipper Michael Hooper and ex-Chiefs duo Tiaan Falcon and Michael Allardice in recent months.

In a statement released on the club’s website, Himeno said it was a difficult decision to leave Japan, but felt it was the right move to develop as a player.

“We are going to challenge Super Rugby at Highlanders in New Zealand. I will do my best to give back by leaving results on the ground, without forgetting the feelings of gratitude to President Toyota and other related parties who are willing to send me this challenge, and to all the fans who have always supported me,” he said.

“I thought it was necessary for me now to leave the environment of my comfortable Japan and play from scratch.

“In addition, I believe that the success of Japanese people overseas will bring many things to the Japanese rugby world in the future, and I hope that you will feel the courage and excitement through my success.

“It’s sad that I can’t play in front of Japanese rugby fans, but when I come back, I hope I can show you how much I’ve grown.”

By joining the Highlanders, the 17-test international, who started in all five of Japan’s World Cup games last year, joins a growing list of new acquisitions for the upcoming Super Rugby Aotearoa season.

The Highlanders have already bolstered their stocks by bringing in former Crusaders teammates Billy Harmon and Fetuli Paea, both of whom will aid the departures of new Blues flanker Dillon Hunt and out-of-contract trio Ash Dixon, Teihorangi Walden and Josh McKay.

Experienced midfielder Rob Thompson has also confirmed he has ended his time with the Highlanders, while head coach of the past three seasons Aaron Mauger was not offered a contract renewal following this year’s campaign.

Predominantly a No. 8, Himeno will have stern competition for a starting role given the rise of Marino Mikaele-Tu’u this season, while the franchise also boasts All Blacks flanker Shannon Frizell in what is looking a strong loose forward contingent.

Himeno will become the second Japanese player to play for the Highlanders, with veteran halfback Fumiaki Tanaka making 46 appearances and winning a Super Rugby title with the team during his four-season stay between 2013 and 2016.