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Cain column: Let’s hear it for World Cup’s little big men

Jamie Joseph and Yataka Nagare

THE legacy of Gerald Davies and Shane Williams, the sensationally talented Wales and Lions wingers, lives on in the sparkling brilliance of some of the small men at this World Cup, with Kenki Fukuoka, Cheslin Kolbe, Kotaru Matsushima, Yataka Nagare, Aaron Smith, Cobus Reinach and Ryoto Nakamura taking pride of place.

They have reminded us forcibly that this must always remain a game for all shapes and sizes, even though for the time being the last refuges of the small men in the pro game are at wing and scrum-half, with occasional appearances at fly-half, full-back and centre.

What the World Rugby law-makers who have encouraged a power game over an aerobic one should consider now is how much poorer this tournament would have been without the sustained brilliance of the players named above.

In the land of the giants, with most players in most squads well over 6ft and 15st, they are undersized – but while you might not find yourself looking up to them if you passed them on the street, you certainly would if you met them on the pitch.

Let’s start on home turf with the remarkable contribution made by the Japanese quartet of wings Fukuoka (5ft 8ins) and Matsushima (5ft 10ins), alongside scrum-half Nagare (5ft 5ins) and centre Nakamura (5ft 10ins).

The counter-attacking cut-and-thrust of Fukuoka left Scotland reeling, and yet early in the tournament, having failed to make the 23 that faced Russia in the opening game, he looked to have been consigned to the supporting cast.

However, having scored tries after coming off the bench against Ireland and Samoa, he went into overdrive after being picked to start against the Scots.

First his classy pass as he was tackled put Matsushima over, and then he scored his first try with a one-handed reflex catch of a grubber. Next he caught the much bigger Chris Harris, and, ripping the ball from his grasp and catching it on the full before it hit the ground, raced clear for a brilliant opportunist try.

Matsushima’s bamboozling shifts of gear and direction caused Ireland and Scotland all sorts of bother, while Nagare’s effortless speed of pass from the breakdown gave both wingers the crucial micro-seconds to weave their spells.

The measure of the Japan No.9’s ability to clear the ball is that his pass is as accurate as Aaron Smith, his 5ft 7ins All Black counterpart.

A word here too for Nakamura, whose ‘they-shall-not-pass’ tackling slammed the gate in midfield as he picked up much bigger men and dumped them backwards.

Japan faced a like-minded adversary Sunday’s quarter-final in South Africa’s 5ft 7ins pocket-rocket, Cheslin Kolbe.

Kolbe is effusive in his praise for Japan’s all-out attacking style. “There is a saying going around that dynamite comes in small packages. Both Japanese wingers are playing phenomenal rugby…they are giving the ball a lot of air, and want to stretch your defensive structures. It’s a style I love to play as well.”

So does his Springbok team-mate Reinach, whose phenomenal pace took him to the fastest hat-trick in World Cup history, as he bagged a try treble in 11 minutes against Canada.

Kolbe says he is looking forward to his tussle with Fukuoka. “He’s got a lot of speed, is really powerful and explosive. It’s going to be an exciting challenge.”

The sad news for rugby is that this might be the last we see of Fukuoka, because at 27 he is about to go to medical school to pursue his ambition of becoming a doctor.

The good news is that he has left a massive mark by reminding the game of how important it is to recognise and reward skill and speed.

NICK CAIN

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