In the first of a series focused on the rugby scene in Japan, Michael Burgess profiles Andrew McCormick, the son of legendary All Black Fergie and one of New Zealand's rugby pioneers in Asia.
When Andrew McCormick first laced on his boots in Japan, he was one of a rare breed.
It was 1992. Jim Bolger was Prime Minister, Laurie Mains was the new All Blacks coach and A Few Good Men was a hit in cinemas.
And for Kiwi rugby players, Japan was a relatively unknown frontier. There were around 30 foreigners plying their trade there — now, there are close to 300 involved in Japan's Top League, including more than 140 New Zealanders.
McCormick, son of All Blacks and Canterbury stalwart Fergie, was one of the trail blazers.
"It was an adventure, a pretty mysterious place to go back then," McCormick tells the Herald on Sunday. "I didn't really know what to expect."
A strong-running centre, McCormick had played 84 times for Canterbury and represented the New Zealand Colts. He had also been involved in All Blacks trials, and was employed as a stock and station agent.
One afternoon, after a provincial match against Otago, McCormick was approached by a visiting delegation from Toshiba, who were scouting players for their team.
"It was crazy, really," says McCormick. "Having a conversation with their head coach, who didn't speak a word of English. Luckily there was a Kiwi guy with them who had spent time in Japan and he was translating."
After an initial orientation visit, McCormick decided to take the plunge, moving to Tokyo.
"I needed a change, something to freshen up," says McCormick. "There were some work opportunities and it was a good opportunity with rugby. I thought I could try something different for a while but I've never really left."
Toshiba had never had a foreign player, and unlike today, there wasn't a posse of translators on hand during training or squad meetings.
"I had to fend for myself," says McCormick. "I'm still not really sure how I managed."
The rugby camaraderie was similar but everything else seemed different. There were 50 players on the team, they practised on rock hard dirt grounds and training sessions could stretch beyond three hours.
"I thought 'gee, I've made a bad decision'," recalls McCormick. "It was very hot and humid, there was no grass to be seen anywhere and I was running around like a chicken with its head cut off at training. I couldn't speak the language, didn't really like the food and wanted to go home."
There were also some unusual cultural differences.
"When I was first there, a lot of players didn't wear underpants, just tight short shorts," McCormick says with a laugh. "You would be doing power stretching as a pair — hamstrings and stuff — and look down and, 'oh, okay'."
On one memorable occasion, Toshiba were sent to train against sumo wrestlers.
"The younger wrestlers were 150kg but the others were much bigger," says McCormick. "One guy was 260kg. The team had to try to drive them across the dojo using their heads. No one could move their necks the following day."
McCormick was employed in the department making elevator parts but spent most of his time studying the language and gradually became more fluent.
Toshiba won three national championships in a row and McCormick was eventually made captain.
"That was a huge honour," says McCormick. "There were some language concerns but I had a strong leadership group and their English was pretty good."
There was more to come, as McCormick was selected to represent the Brave Blossoms in 1996, then appointed captain two years later, the first non-Japanese to lead the national team.
"It was a big deal and it wasn't that popular in some circles," says McCormick. "It was a good thing I couldn't read the newspapers or magazines back then."
The national team was in crisis, after the disastrous campaign at the 1995 World Cup, which included the infamous 145-17 thrashing by the All Blacks, where New Zealand scored 21 tries, with Marc Ellis crossing for six.
"They had been smashed and it wasn't a great tournament off the field either," says McCormick. "Self belief is huge in Japanese sports and it had been really affected."
It also led to Japan opening the door to exiles, with Graeme Bachop, Rob Gordon, Greg Smith and Jamie Joseph also drafted into the team.
Japan enjoyed some promising results in 1998, with wins over Tonga 44-17, Samoa 37-34 and Argentina 44-29 in Tokyo.
"Grizz Wyllie was their [Pumas] coach and he was a legend for a Canterbury boy," says McCormick. "He was very gracious about our team."
Those results raised hopes for the 1999 World Cup, even though Japan was in the "group of death".
They were well beaten by Wales in Cardiff 64-15 and physically overpowered by Samoa 43-9, though the Pacific team, which included Brian Lima, Va'aiga Tuigamala and Pat Lam, blew out the scoreline with two converted tries in stoppage time.
Japan saved their best performance for last, matching a dour Pumas side for most of the match before succumbing 33-12.
McCormick retired from international rugby after the tournament and became head coach at Toshiba for three years, before Kamaishi Seawaves lured him back for another playing stint.
"It was hard," says McCormick. "I was a bit chubby. But it was a great experience."
McCormick then filled various coaching roles at NTT Docomo, Coca-Cola Red Sparks and for a university side, where there could be up to 125 players on the team.
He returned to Christchurch for five years in 2004 but was still commuting back to Japan "every few weeks" for a specialist coaching role, before relocating back to Kobe in 2009, where he now works as an adviser with player agency Halo.
Japanese rugby has changed considerably since he played, and the standard has lifted significantly with the influx of overseas players. But McCormick retains great memories of the pioneering days.
"They used to have these big baths and there was a tradition of everyone getting in the bath together after the match, even all the opposition," says McCormick. "There were a lot of laughs.
"And as foreigners, we used to catch up a lot, because there weren't many of us. All us foreign boys would meet in a bar in Tokyo most Saturday nights, with Joe Stanley, John Kirwan and others."
McCormick also remembers marking Stanley one year against NEC, then facing his son, Jeremy, in another season.
"No one really knew how old Joe was," says McCormick. "It was all a bit of a mystery."
McCormick expects this year's World Cup to be a hit, especially for the visiting teams and fans.
"Japan will put on a wonderful tournament and create a great environment to play rugby in," says McCormick. "It means teams will be able to perform to the best of their ability. It's going to be huge, one of the best there's been."
• Michael Burgess travelled to Japan with the support of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.