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Scholarships in Japan: Hard work turns sports talent into opportunities

ADVENTURE AHEAD: Liam Henderson is excited about his rugby scholarship in Japan.Picture by Renae Lolohea
PATHS CROSS: Poverty Bay’s Jordyn Tihore (right) lines up Ngati Porou East Coast player Katarina Ngarimu for a tackle.Picture by Renae Lolohea

RUGBY by Renae Lolohea

Hicks Bay teenager Liam Henderson has been offered a $400,000 rugby scholarship at Yamanashi Gakuin High School in Japan.

His agent, Gisborne’s Luke Bradley, who lived in Japan for 10 years, has his own rugby agency LRB Sports, that’s helping create opportunities in Tairāwhiti.

LRB Sport focuses on women’s sevens players, coaches, and scholarships for high school and university students, and works with men’s teams in Japan.

Bradley knew that Liam was something special after watching him play for Fraser High School in Hamilton, and the East Coast under-16s.

“What I liked about Liam was straight away you could see he was very coachable, well mannered and very respectful,” Bradley said.

“He had some raw talent that could be unleashed in the high school system in Japan.”

Liam’s mum, Jade Henderson, said Liam started playing Rippa Rugby at around five years of age. Even then, his parents were questioned about his age.

“He was quite big for his age, so we had to show his birth certificate,” Jade said.

When Liam progressed to tackle rugby, he had to play up two years. Now 16, he stands 6ft 1in (1.85 metres), weighs 115 kilograms, and often gets mistaken for a 20-year-old.

He began playing rugby in Hamilton for Te Rapa, then moved home to Hicks Bay to learn his whakapapa and te reo.

There he played for the Ngāti Porou East Coast under-13s and u14s.

He returned to Hamilton for secondary school, and continued playing throughout his high school years. This year he made the first 15.

Liam is also skilled at Kyokushin, a Japanese form of martial arts.

His father Warren took him along to his first class at the age of three.

By seven he had his black belt in the children’s class and was moved up. He hopes to further develop his skills in Japan.

“Hopefully I get to spar with a few people and practise Kyokushin over there; sparring is fun, it toughens you up,” Liam said.

Although he is nervous about moving, he says this is a big opportunity.

“I’m pretty nervous about moving but I’m also excited,” Liam said.

“I’m nervous because I get homesick, but it’s good I get this opportunity.

Also preparing to head offshore is 16-year-old Jordyn Tihore.

She landed a similar contract last year, but it’s been a rocky road.

Covid-19 disrupted her plans to travel to Japan, and when that country closed its borders Jordyn’s student visa was no longer valid.

Jordyn started playing Rippa Rugby with Matakaoa (Te Araroa) JAB at the age of seven, but she found her passion when she was allowed to play tackle rugby.

Playing for Lytton High School was a highlight, and she attributes that to the coach, former Black Fern Trish Hina.

“It was the best experience; it developed me into the rugby player I am now,” Jordyn said.

Growing up on the Coast and having community support instilled in her the drive to work hard to succeed.

“I want to work hard for those who go to work early in the morning to pay for me to go and live my dream,” Jordyn said.

Despite the disruption to her travel plans, Jordyn ensured she was prepared for any developments. She took weekly Japanese classes through Zoom and continued to play high-level rugby — for Poverty Bay women and New Zealand under-18 Māori women.

A recent change in the Japanese border situation means that Jordyn’s visa is now valid, and she will be allowed to travel to Japan.

Some say it’s hard for people from small East Coast townships to get ahead. Liam and Jordyn show that with hard work, anything is possible.