The New Zealand Universities side have arrived in Japan determined to fly the flag and uphold the best traditions of scarfie rugby.
The NZU flew out late on Wednesday night after a meet and greet assembly in Auckland. The mood was typically light-hearted and relaxed, but the squad looks well-equipped to combat whatever is thrown at them.
There is a close relationship with Japanese rugby which stretches back to the 1936 NZU tour of Japan and continues to this day with some solid sponsorship and a tour by NZU every second year. This squad contains three survivors from the unbeaten 2013 tourists - captain and Manawatu loose forward James Oliver, Auckland threequarter Liam Steel, and Waikato loosie Whetu Douglas.
Coach Brendon Timmins, the former NZU, Highlanders and Otago lock, and his assistant Simon Forrest, the former Crusaders and Canterbury fullback, were on tenterhooks on Sunday and Monday awaiting any foreboding news about injured players out of Saturday's club rugby around the country before they could finalise who would make it onto the plane.
There were not too many late defections, but they had already lost several key men through injury such as North Harbour fullback Luke Devcich (concussion), Otago No 8 Sione Teu and wing Faasiu Fuatai (ankles). Crusaders loose forward Tom Sanders was released by Todd Blackadder, but succumbed to an ankle issue. Wellington loosie Adam Hill was going to win a call-up, but Ardie Savea's finger injury meant the Hurricanes did not release him.
Broc Hooper of Lincoln has replaced Devcich. He can operate at first five, fullback or wing, and was a key member of the outstanding 2012 St Kentigern First XV and kicked goals for the NZ Schools that year. Hooper is now on the verge of ITM Cup action with Canterbury.
Sunday's first match in Osaka against Japan East will see NZU likely field the bare minimum 22 with Auckland University forwards Marcel Renata and Sinclair Dominikovich-Murray to sit this one out nursing injuries along with Otago halfback Kaide Whiting. All three should be fine for the second match on May 2 against Kanto, a curtainraiser to the Japan-Hong Kong test match in Tokyo's main stadium, which will be used for the 2019 Rugby World Cup. The final match, also in Tokyo, is set for May 5.
Timmins is, however, certain he can field a strong combination to return home with three wins from three as well as doing some early reconnaissance for New Zealand Rugby ahead of RWC 2019.
"The players we've brought in are quality. There's some good horses in there, nice cattle, so we're expecting to give a good account of ourselves and continue the fine traditions of NZU rugby," said Timmins.
Those traditions involve expansive, but not dumb, rugby, as befits this unique team. The players love rugby and many are seeking to make a living out of it, but the game is not their sole focus in life. They are mostly articulate men, interested in the world around them and what better way to do that than through rugby. The NZU team is renowned for enjoying themselves off the field, but not to the detriment of their rugby. Some of the team will have their books and laptops on tour to stay ahead in academia.
"The NZU philosophy is when the boots are on, you focus and work hard. When the boots come off, we get to enjoy the cultural aspects that Japan has to offer us and to get to know each other," Timmins said.
Excursions are planned on the bullet train, to Mt Fuji, and to a special luncheon in Yokohama.
The NZU has a rich history and have scalped international sides, most notably the 1956 Springboks and the 1977 Lions tourists. That has been touched upon within this group, and in fact the four mini-team tour names reflect the NZU history - Jeff Parsons, captain of the 1936 NZU tourists to Japan, NZU patron and former player David Kirk, not to mention Conrad Smith and Kieran Read, both of whom have worn the NZU jersey.
The hope is that one day NZU can again play top international sides, even though the team is not under the New Zealand Rugby high performance umbrella. Ironically, NZU would probably be very competitive against Japan and Hong Kong, for whom they play the May 2 curtainraiser.
"But for now, if we can be good ambassadors into Asia and be competitive, that's what we're about," said Timmins.
The players are also smart enough to know that they can have a prime job interview opportunity on this tour, with plenty of yen thrown about for New Zealand players. The vast majority are already in ITM Cup contracts or on the verge of them, and Waikato hooker Hame Faiva was the starting rake for the 2014 New Zealand Under 20s.
Captain James Oliver first played for NZU way back in 2005 out of Wellington's Old Boys-University club. His older siblings Brent and Anton were also NZU reps.
Oliver is expecting stiff opposition, but likes the versatility in the squad.
"You do have to have a bit of versatility on a tour like this, so we've got locks/sixes and sixes/eights and backs who can play all over the place," he said.
"It's (Japan's) home patch, so they dictate terms a lot of the time, which is fine. They have a proud rugby heritage, and are obviously building for Rugby World Cup there."
Oliver is fully aware of how strong NZU form can open doors and turn heads, and not just at provincial level. He has played for the side alongside Kieran Read and Adam Thomson in the past, and has seen his Turbo teammate Callum Gibbins seize his chance with the Hurricanes.
"It should be recognised as a feasible pathway to ITM, if not Super, rugby. The young guys who are here should view it as such," Oliver added.
NZU eligibility is open to students or graduates who are playing club rugby for any recognised university side.
NZ Universities squad to tour Japan: Broc Hooper (Lincoln), Matt Faddes (Otago), Gavin Stark (Otago), Te Wehi Wright (Old Boys-University, Wellington), Liam Steel (Auckland), Rob O'Sullivan (Canterbury), James Waddel (Old Boys-University), Ere Enari (Lincoln), Kurt Davies (Canterbury), Kaide Whiting (Otago), Jack Stratton (Lincoln), James Oliver (Massey, c), Mitchell Clarke (Old Boys-University), Sinclair Dominikovich-Murray (Auckland), Ian Kennedy (Old Boys-University), Whetu Douglas (Waikato), Tom Hughes (Massey), David Morgan (Waikato), Tom Robinson (Auckland), Robin Praat (Massey), Angus Williams (Otago), Marcel Renata (Auckland), Hame Faiva (Waikato), Nick Werahiko (Lincoln), Nick Grogan (Massey)