Talented Rotorua rugby player Matt Vant Leven is enjoying his time playing in Japan and has hinted at trying to break into the national team ahead of the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Vant Leven moved to Japan in 2014 after winning a Super Rugby title with the Chiefs in 2013.
The loose forward is currently in his second season with the Kobelco Steelers who play in Japan's top division - the Top League.
Vant Leven and the Steelers have qualified for the playoffs this season and take on the Kintetsu Liners in their quarter-final this weekend.
The 28-year-old said he was really enjoying life at the Steelers and had plans to stay in Japan beyond this season.
"This is my second season over here and I'm just in the negotiation stage for next year and beyond," he said.
"I'd like to stay on as long as possible and maybe once my three-year residency finishes push for a spot in the Japan national team these next few years, leading into the next World Cup over here.
It will be exciting times for Japan rugby."
He said he had to deal with a few injuries during his first season in Japan but had managed to stay fit this season, playing at No8 and blindside flanker.
"I have had a pretty good run this year, my body has been in good nick, touch wood.
"It was a bit of a struggle last year with niggly injuries. It took a while to adjust to the field conditions which are pretty hard on your lower limbs."
Vant Leven is part of a strong roster at Kobelco which boasts former Springboks as well as an All Black, Andy Ellis.
"We have an awesome foreign contingent here at Kobe with the likes of Andy Ellis, Jaque Fourie, Andries Bekker, Fraser Anderson and former Roosters league player Craig Wing."
Vant Leven said he would be heading back to New Zealand during the upcoming off-season.
"[The competition] will be all wrapped up by the end of January so I can hopefully catch the back end of this summer that I'm hearing so much about."
He said he was slowly but surely learning the language while overseas.
"It's getting there. I have lessons every week and the Japanese boys are good teachers, they love the fact that you are trying even though you could be saying the complete opposite thing."
The former Waikato captain said the player he had most enjoyed playing alongside was the Kobelco captain, Daiki Hashimoto.
"I have really enjoyed playing alongside our captain and openside Daiki Hashimoto, one of the toughest but humblest players I have played with.
"He would not look out of place running out for any team in New Zealand."
He said the quality of rugby in Japan was better than many people would expect. "The level of playing is pretty good, games are fast, entertaining and the skill level would surprise a lot of people."
Vant Leven did his schooling at Rotorua Boys' High School and played for local club side Whakarewarewa.
- By Gary Hamilton-Irvine