'Ferrari' Fukuoka to swap rugby boots for doctors' scrubs

After helping Japan to Rugby World Cup quarter-finals, wing wizard hopes to end sporting career on a high at Tokyo 2020 Olympics

By Shintaro Kano ·

Japan's flying wing Kenki Fukuoka certainly knows how to sign off in style.

The 27-year-old was a key man as the hosts stunned Ireland and Scotland to finish top of Pool A and reach the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals.

While South Africa proved a step too far for the Brave Blossoms, Japan has well and truly embraced the tournament with rugby reaching record levels of popularity in the nation.

But despite acquiring star status in the past month, Fukuoka - 'Ferrari' to his team-mates - has opted to forgo fame and fortune by quitting the sport to pursue his childhood dream of becoming a doctor.

It's not quite the end for the 1.75m pocket rocket as he intends to go out on a high at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games rugby sevens.

"This was the last time I played 15-a-side and, from the bottom of my heart, I could not be happier the way it has ended." - Kenki Fukuoka speaking to reporters after Japan's RWC quarter-final defeat to South Africa

Kenki Fukuoka embraces Japan head coach Jamie Joseph after the 2019 Rugby World Cup quarter-final defeat to South Africa

Making his name

As the son of a dentist and grandson of a doctor, Fukuoka knew from an early age that he wanted to follow a career in medicine.

But when he failed to gain entry to medical school at his alma mater Tsukuba University, he seriously began considering rugby as a profession.

Fukuoka was in the 2015 Rugby World Cup squad and watched from the stands as the team coached by Australian Eddie Jones, now eyeing the trophy with semi-finalists England, stunned South Africa 34-32 in the group stages.

Karne Hesketh's last-gasp try secured one of the greatest upsets in rugby history which inspired a recently released film called 'The Brighton Miracle'.

Japan players mob Karne Hesketh after his last-second try secured a shock win over South Africa at the 2015 Rugby World Cup

Jones once likened Fukuoka’s speed to that of legendary Springbok wing Bryan Habana, the top World Cup try-scorer of all-time.

He played in the sevens competition at Rio 2016, helping Japan to a surprise semi-final berth.

But they went down to eventual winners Fiji in the last four before being overpowered by South Africa in the bronze medal playoff.

In 2017, Fukuoka joined the Japanese-based Super Rugby outfit Sunwolves who played in the South African Group of the competition.

With national team coach Joseph also taking charge of Sunwolves, Fukuoka gained valuable experience against some of South Africa's finest players and scored four tries in nine games in his first season.

He soon became a mainstay of the Brave Blossoms, but a calf strain ruled him out of Japan's World Cup opener against Russia.

Fukuoka was named as a replacement for the game with Ireland, and he came off the bench to score a crucial try - his first in the World Cup - as the hosts pulled off a stunning 19-12 victory.

Kenki Fukuoka scores a try for Japan in their 19-12 win over Ireland at the 2019 Rugby World Cup

He crossed again in the win over Samoa before producing the performance of his career in the crunch clash with Scotland.

In a match which had been threatened by Typhoon Hagibis, Fukuoka scored just before half-time to help Japan into a 21-7 lead at the break.

Then three minutes after the restart, he ripped the ball from Chris Harris's grasp and sprinted under the posts for a sensational try.

Japan won 28-21 to top Pool A and reach the quarter-finals for the first time.

No regrets

A nation wept as South Africa exacted revenge for Brighton four years ago in Tokyo's Ajinomoto Stadium, the venue for rugby sevens at next year's Olympic Games.

Yet Fukuoka was at peace with himself as always.

"This is the result of everyone on the team doing everything he possibly can. South Africa were really tough, but we accomplished our goal of reaching the quarter-finals so I have nothing more to give. I didn’t shed too many tears.

"I think this World Cup turned out to be a good conclusion for me. We got the job done as a team and I’m proud of how things have turned out."

Kenki Fukuoka shows his appreciation to the crowd after Japan's 2019 Rugby World Cup quarter-final defeat to South Africa

He added, "I always knew this tournament was going to be it for me which is why I managed to get through all the lows up to this point. Knowing this was the end allowed me to come back from injuries and give rugby everything I have.

"I have zero regrets about the path I’ve chosen. I’m proud of what we achieved here as a team and grateful for the incredible support from all around Japan.

"Now I can take the next step in my life, with my head held high."

But hopefully, we will see 'Ferrari' Fukuoka speeding across the turf once again in a Japan shirt at Tokyo 2020.