Profile: Nathan Hirayama
Like Father, Like Son: a Canadian Rugby legacy
by Ross W Halliday
While most Canadian sons dream of sporting success with skates and hockey sticks, one Richmond man decided to travel a different path and instead followed in his father’s footsteps onto the battlefields of international rugby.
In the seventies & eighties, sansei Gary Hirayama was travelling the world with the Canadian Rugby team, including playing in the first Canada sevens team to compete at the famous Hong Kong Sevens Tournament. He went on to win 12 caps at fly half for his country.
History was made twenty-five years later when, in May 2007, at just 19 years, two months and two days, his son Nathan took the field against the renowned New Zealand Maori in the Barclays Churchill Cup in the UK.
In doing so, not only did he become Canada’s youngest test debutant but it also cemented his family name in the record books as Canada’s first-ever rugby-playing father/son duo.
Since then and still only 24 years old, Nathan has emerged as one of the country’s most important players.
In 2011, he helped Canada earn the admiration of the international rugby community with powerful and committed performances at the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand and by winning gold at the Pan-American (Pan-Am) Games in Mexico.
This year, there is Olympic qualification at stake and The Bulletin caught up with Nathan at the team’s hotel in New Zealand where he is currently playing for Canada in the Wellington Sevens (February 3-4) – the first of two qualifying tournaments to take place in February.
Nathan Hirayama: In his Own Words
You don’t hear of too many Japanese Canadian rugby players, what is your family’s history in Canada?
Both my parents were born and raised in Richmond, British Columbia, as were my sister and I. I was introduced to Rugby at an early age as my father played for Canada in the eighties.
You are the younger half of the only father/son duo to play for Canada, albeit at different times, have you ever had a chance to play together?
Unfortunately not and I’ve never seen him play either so if anyone has any photos or videos please let me know. My dad retired from playing a couple years after I was born but I have heard from many people that he was a pretty good player. He played in the same position as I do so he is able to give good advice from time to time.
Did you play any other sports growing up or did you always know you were going to follow your dad into rugby?
I grew up playing basically every sport imaginable. I played baseball and soccer from age five-18, as well as hockey, golf, volleyball, basketball. I come from a pretty active family. My mom was a very keen runner and my sister currently plays soccer at University of British Columbia. I started playing rugby in high school but I didn’t really begin to fully concentrate on it alone until I went away to university. I did find it a bit strange at first only concentrating on one sport and I still miss playing the other sports competitively, but rugby has given me a lot – the chance to travel and see the world, make friends with people from different walks of life. Opportunities I don’t think I would have gotten otherwise.
Your rise through the ranks of the Canadian under-17 and under-19 was very quick and at 19 you became the youngest player ever to be capped for Canada, how did you handle the pressure?
Playing school rugby at Hugh McRoberts Secodary gave me a good start in the game and it helped being able to climb through the ranks of the age grade teams but it was daunting winning my first cap at just 19, I did feel quite a bit of pressure to perform. Growing up and usually being a regular starter on age grade teams, I found it difficult being left out of line-ups mostly because I felt as though I was not able to prove myself and abilities like I wanted to. But over the years I’ve come to realize that’s just the way things go. Sports at any level is all about testing yourself against that pressure, it is what I thrive on.
You are currently studying Physical Education at University of Victoria, how do you juggle playing rugby for Canada with your academic studies?
It is a difficult task at times juggling school commitments along with rugby but I don’t think I’ve ever had it any other way. I’m currently a full time student at the school (taking a full course load), along with on-field and in-the-gym training sessions about five-six days a week (for the University, or the National team). Add in the odd two-week 7s trip and it’s a pretty tough schedule mentally as well as financially. But it’s been this way for me since I was 18 years old so you get used to it. I’ve gotten a lot better at managing my time and getting things done when I have to. I just have to keep my head down and get on with it.
At last year’s World Cup in New Zealand Canada earned the admiration of the international rugby community with their own brand of “never say die” attacking rugby, what has the reaction been like back home?
There is no doubt that the team is beginning to receive a lot more support here in Canada. The reaction when we arrived home from New Zealand was incredible, a lot different from past trips. It seemed like the tournament received a lot of attention back home and the Canadian public responded. We received many messages of support, which had a very positive impact on our performance and it obviously helped that TSN (Bell Media) was broadcasting the tournament. I thought that although we did not advance through to the quarter finals , there were still periods of play where we played very well and showed our true potential and abilities.
A month or so after the World Cup you went on to win gold at the Pan-Am Games with the rugby 7s team in Mexico, what was that experience like and what does it feel like to win a Gold medal?
Winning the Pan Am Games was without a doubt one of my greatest sporting achievements. Going into the tournament we were confident we could do well but we knew it wouldn’t be easy, especially beating the likes of the USA and Argentina. To actually finish the tournament as gold medalists was indescribable, it is something special, something that can never be taken away.
OLYMPIC DREAMS – THE ROAD TO RIO, 2016
Similar to the ATP Tennis Tour, the IRB Sevens Circuit is an elite-level competition between rugby nations where teams compete for the ‘Sevens World Series’ title by accumulating points based on their finishing position in each tournament. In 2009, Sevens Rugby received Olympic status for the 2016 Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro.
On Friday 2nd December 2011, Canada’s men’s and women’s rugby teams took their first steps towards qualifying for 2016 when they made their season debut at the Dubai Sevens.
However, the road to Rio is a complicated one with Canadians first looking to earn core member status on the IRB World Sevens circuit. Canada has been a part-time player since 2007. This season is will take part in five of the nine annual tournaments.
After Dubai (2nd-3rd Dec), the Canadians competed in South Africa (9th-10th Dec) before flying to New Zealand (3rd-4th Feb) and USA (10th-12 Feb) events before taking part in the pivotal Hong Kong Sevens (23rd-25th Mar).
The Hong Kong tournament will serve to decide the 15 core teams for the 2012-13 series, up from 12 last season and is being split into two separate tournaments. One has the current 12 core teams competing against each other and the other has Canada and 11 others competing for the three remaining spots for the 2012/13 season.
The Canadian men will face opposition from the likes of Japan, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Tonga and Zimbabwe in Hong Kong. Core status would mean taking part in 10 tournaments, which Nathan believes would be a huge boost for the game in Canada.
What are Canada’s chances of qualifying for the Olympics in 2016 and what would it mean to you to be an Olympian?
I always feel we are going to do well in any of the 7s tournament we enter. The great thing about 7’s is, the games are short, there is lots space on the field, and every team has athletes capable of playing attacking rugby. It means no teams are completely safe from potential upsets.
Our pool for Wellington has in it – Australia, France, and Kenya – but we feel our chances of advancing through to the cup round are strong, which means winning two of the three games on day one. Every tournament from now until 2016 is important for us. As of now, I believe that the Olympic tournament is only expecting to invite 15 teams (most tournaments are at least 16). We strongly believe that we belong in that top 15. It is important for us to make sure we are playing to that standard so that everybody knows (the teams and IRB) that we belong in that top bracket.
My dream is to be a part of the 2016 Olympic games – it’s the pinnacle – I don’t think it can get any better then that, can it?
Aside from the Olympics in 2016, what are your dreams & plans for the future?
As for my plans or dreams for the future, it’s hard to really narrow it down at the moment – I guess I just hope to continue doing things I am passionate about. For the time being, I’m really enjoying playing rugby and being a student. I’m studying to become a teacher at university at the moment so I could very easily end up doing that, but still I’m not 100% sure. I just know that I want to keep my options open.
Your father moved into teaching when he retired as well as coaching – he is the longtime coach of the ‘McRoberts Strikers’ – can you see yourself staying in the game and passing on your experience to the next generation of Canadian rugby players as a coach?
I definitely see myself continuing to be involved with the game in one way or another. Whether it’s coaching or in another capacity – it just seems like rugby is one of those sports that stays with you for life. Not many people are able to cut ties with it completely when they’re done playing for some funny reason. I know already that I won’t either.
For more information on the IRB Sevens Series, including schedules, player bios, and stats, please visit www.irbsevens.com or www.rugbycanada.ca
CANADA 7s Squad for Wellington and Las Vegas tournaments
1. Tyler Ardron
2. Nanyak Dala
3. Sean Duke
4. Ciaran Hearn
5. Nathan Hirayama
6. John Moonlight
7. Tay Paris
8. Conor Trainor
9. Sean White
Head Coach: Geraint John
Assistant Coach: Kieran Crowley
Manager: Brian Hunter
Therapist: Isabel Grondin
In case you are wondering what a ‘cap’ is:
In the sport of Rugby Union, a cap is a metaphorical term for a player’s appearance on a national team. The term dates from the practice in the United Kingdom of awarding a cap (an item of headgear) to every player in an international match of association football. In the early days of soccer, the concept of each team wearing a set of matching shirts had not been universally adopted, so each side would distinguish itself from the other by wearing a specific sort of cap.
The act of awarding a cap is now international and is applied to other sports as well. Actual caps are not always given anymore, but the term “cap” for an international or other appearance has been retained. Thus, a cap is awarded for each game played and so a player who has played x games, for the team, is said to have been capped x times or have won x caps.
Ross W Halliday is a Toronto-based journalist and filmmaker. Together with his partners he runs www.MoringaMedia.com, a digital communications and media production company. He is an ardent sports fan and retired from Rugby in 2003, shortly after representing Scotland U21s and Watsonians RFC (Edinburgh, UK). You can follow him on Twitter@RWHalliday