Sakata pioneer for Japan side

Deme Sakata (left) catches up with 1987 World Cup-winning All Black captain David Kirk at the...
Deme Sakata (left) catches up with 1987 World Cup-winning All Black captain David Kirk at the University of Otago Oval on Saturday. PHOTO: WAYNE PARSONS
Among the rugby royalty at the University of Otago Oval on Saturday to watch the touring Kansai Universities play New Zealand Universities was International Rugby Board Hall of Fame inductee Yoshihiro (Deme) Sakata.

Japanese team to represent the Japanese Rugby Football Union in a 10-match tour of New Zealand in 1968.

It defeated the New Zealand Juniors 23-19 at Athletic Park, a Juniors side that contained no fewer than 10 future All Blacks.

Sakata, on the left wing, scored four of his side's six tries in the victory.

Sakata returned to New Zealand the next year, breaking into the Canterbury team, a side containing players such as All Blacks Fergie McCormick, Ian Kirkpatrick and Alister Hopkinson.

The stint lasted six eventful months during which he represented South Island Universities, New Zealand Universities and New Zealand Barbarians.

Because of his lack of English he introduced himself to the New Zealand players as Deme (which means eyes wide open) and the name has stuck to this day.

It is thought All Black honours may have come his way, but Sakata opted instead to return to Japan and continued to represent Japan, going on to play 16 full internationals until hanging up his boots in 1973.

Since his retirement as a player, Sakata has continued a long and prestigious involvement in rugby.

He is president and tour manager of the Kansai Universities team, and vice-president of the Japanese Rugby Union.

Looking fondly out across the University of Otago Oval, he recalled how he played for New Zealand Universities on the ground, scoring two tries.

Sakata, who first played for All Japan at 19, said players in his time had to use more skill as opposed to the game's more physical nature these days.

"You don't see the individual skill now so much," he said.

He retired six years ago from his role as university professor in physical education, although he remains busy in his rugby administration roles.

When asked what he did in his spare time, Sakata - always the rugby player - replied "prepare Japan for the World Cup".

Sakata is disappointed the Sunwolves will drop out of Super Rugby, but remains hopeful of more contact between New Zealand rugby and Japan.

He said one key to opening the pathway for both countries could be through university rugby.

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