A "chance of a lifetime" is what Jordyn Tihore (Ngāti Porou), 16, and Pounamu Mackay (Ngāti Raukawa), 16, describe as the opportunity to play rugby and study in Japan for the next three years.
They have been selected to attend Reitaku High School in Japan on a full rugby scholarship valued at $100,000. The opportunity was provided by rugby player management firm LRB Sports.
Both say they are excited to tackle all obstacles now in front of them and to sharpen their craft abroad. "I was pretty amazed, I was really grateful as well because I'm in such an isolated area when it comes to sports, which is in Te Araroa on the East Coast," Tihore says.
MacKay was just told this morning by LRB Sports that she will also be heading off to Japan. "I was still trying to process in my head that I got it. It's honestly such a big deal and I thought I wouldn't be able to get it so I was shocked."
Tihore and Mackay welcome the $100,000 scholarship alongside the opportunity to be fully immersed in another culture. The journey itself is uncharted territory but they are up for it.
"The school that we're going to is Reitaku High School, which is in Chiba. We saw the training schedule and it was pretty full-on so you know I have to put that mahi in and hopefully we will get into the routine of how professional it is in Japan," Tihore says.
Having a sense of professionalism in what they do when it comes to rugby is something MacKay is looking forward to when she arrives in Japan. "It's quite professional over there - everything is in a strict guide and I know over here it's quite casual. You pretty much just jump on the field on the day and we don't get many girls coming to training so that's one thing I'd get out of that as well as the culture."
This opportunity was provided by LRB Rugby, which made the connections to the networks in Japan. LRB Sports' Luke Bradley has been working on the exchange for five years. A camp was held recently for the players, which focused on rugby and the cultural fundamentals of Japan.
"They'll go over to the Sanix Championships, which is where the best in the world get together and have a tournament. Whether or not that's going ahead or not due to Covid-19 I'm not too sure. But the girls will be playing practice games and tournaments every weekend. And they'll be playing both 15s and 7s."
Close to a hundred players have been sent over to Japan under LRB Sports and Bradley says he has seen the fruits of the kaupapa. "Personally, why I like the Japan exchange trip is it picks up valuable work ethic skills and they come back super fit. A prime example is Rene Holmes who went over there and she came back from Japan super fit and now she is a Black Fern."
"We were fortunate to have a Japan prep camp down here in Te Tai Rāwhiti and it went really well. The language side of things, working with coaches who have been coaching in Japan. I think the athletes would have walked away from that camp feeling a bit more relaxed and less anxious about their trip.
Lastly, the two players say that leaving the nest to experience the world, ensures better self-development and will go toward improving their craft. "It's honestly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I don't see many people getting an opportunity like this," MacKay says
Jordyn and Pounamu will leave New Zealand for Japan on April 2.