15 Mar. 2024


ISAIAH PUNIVAI "To Keep Leading Myself"

Getting some insights from Punivai- what's behind his smiley face and what's driving him this season? (interviewed early March 2024)

◆Felt good to score a try

――Congratulations on your first try for Leauge One against the Hanazono Kintetsu Liners! How was it like on the field?

It was good. Ryoto (Nakamura) put it on a plate for me so it was probably the easiest try I've ever scored, but glad to have ticked it off the board, first try. It was a first try of the game, and the forwards have been putting pressure on the set piece so backs were able to finish it off.

――How was your second try?

Probably quite similar, it was off the back of the great work from the forwards making line break and getting momentum; I just happened to be at the end of it.

――Would you usually be on the edge in those scenarios?

No, not usually, but I think probably as we have played together for the last couple of games, positions are more interchangeable. Everyone's skillful at passes, carries or kicks, so we are able to swap in and out, and don't have to try too hard to be in in one spot that we're supposed to be in.

――So its more your decision on the run?

Yes, well it's more how it ends up in that moment. We just know that we need to have someone in each position, spread across the field. Everyone is capable of all positions, backfield or on the edge etc.

◆ Keeping my mind and body fresh

――You're playing really well- are you feeling good too?

Yes, physically I had a lot of support form the S&C staff and medical staff, to keep my body right and in good shape, and I'm probably more dedicated this season mentally. When I first arrived, I was probably still getting used to the level of the competition and how the team works, and I was probably trying to find out who I am as well,
After a year of experience here, and coming to my second year, I now know what I need to do to keep myself in good condition, and to keep my mind and my energy refreshed,

――You were the last one out from the treatment room after training today.

One of the last, yes. My body is the biggest tool, so I have to look after it. I feel I am in the best physical shape that I've ever been in.

――You have been performing so well and consistent since the opening game, how do you think?

I think my game has definitely grown, and I've also learnt more about myself in the last 12- 18months. Obviously with the support from the coaches and S&C staff, I now know what I need to tick off during the week.

I know what I need to make sure I get done, so once I get to the game day, I know I've done my preparation, and that I've had enough reps of everything I need to. Knowing that I've done my homework and that I've watched footages, all I need to focus is working as hard as I can and have fun.

――Did you have that feeling back in New Zealand?

Not as consistently as I do now; earlier in my career when I was younger, I'd have a couple of good games and I'd get a bit complacent, so I just turn up on the game day without having done the work in the week.

◆First time living on my own

――How do you think your mindset has shifted in Japan?

Coming from a club like the Crusaders, where they have a lot of good support and advice, on looking after yourself both mentally and physically, or how to feed your body with the right nutritions, I think I had a lot of information. But because I thought I was probably too far from playing, I probably didn't really see the point and I never really applied it.

Looking back now though, if anything that was the best time to focus on those little details.

So when I came here, I had all the knowledge, but here, the support staffs are always asking "Are you doing this? Are you doing this?". And I was living on my own as well so I had to cook for myself. It's the first time I've actually been on my own and in control of all of my routines and my life.

So I think... I still don't have until the end of the season to really realise if I actually have been disciplined with things and applied all the knowledge that I already had, but I will stay hungry to learn more and grow further.. I have more opportunities that I am starting to see now and I'm very grateful. To put it simply- I just grew up. Learnt how to become an adult.

――Would you suggest the young players out there to live on your own, to grow?

I guess so (laughs). It definitely opened my mind, especially in a foreign country where they don't speak English, you feel you have to rely on yourself. I'm not fluent in Japanese and I don't know how things work in Japan, so all I can do is take care of myself and control what I can control. I wouldn't chang anything about moving to Japan.

◆Defence is rewarding

――You mentioned you enjoy defending in rugby in our last interview- but you're attacking loads. Has there been a shift?

No, I'd say I still love defence and the physical side of the sport. I like attacking too, it's fun, but I think defence is more rewarding.

――Do you feel you're developing your defensive skills as well?

I've been doing a lot of work with Hugh (Hogan), who's come in this year, and also with the players too, especially with midfielders. Everyone is driving each others' standards a lot more this year and I think it's more powerful if your teammates are telling you that we need to be better at this area, this is how we can do it, or let's do it together- as opposed to coaches telling us we need to do this etc, we are more accountable.

――Who do you usually talk to the most?

Ryoto. He's a great Defence leader. He's got a good overall rugby brain. We also play midfield together, so he knows what he needs from the centre, and I know what it's like to play at 12 and we understand how to work well together.

――What part of your game do you think you have developed the most?

My leadership, perhaps. My communication on and off the field as well. I feel I'm a lot better at demanding what I need from the players around me on the field, or letting the players know where I am, how I'm moving, what we'll do in the next phase, and also identifying where the space is, so I can help the players around me with my voice. I think I've done a lot of work to develop my triple threats- run, pass and kick. I never used to kick, but having done a lot of work- I guess that's the biggest area of growth.

――Do you enjoy kicking now then?

I still prefer to carry or pass (laughs), but if I do need to kick, I'm confident that I can now

◆Pushing Myself

――On your leadership--wouldn't it be exciting to think you could perhaps be the captain for Sungoliath one day.

If it happens one day, it'd be a huge honour to lead this team. But I don't think leadership is restricted to just being a captain or a vice captain. If anything, I think it's better to have leaders that's not captain or vice captain. So we can first of all lead yourself to be the best you can, to drive the standards within the team, and to bring everyone else with you.

――What are the tips in leading yourself?

If I think about myself 3 years ago, compared to myself now, the big difference in leading myself is the discipline with my body, making sure I take care of it, what I put into my body, food, hydration. But also the big one for me is to be able to lead myself, I have to push myself and hold myself accountable.

There have been times in my career where I'd turn up and think "I'm tired, I'm sore, I don't feel like doing an extra rep, or it's been a long day, I don't feel like stretching so I'll just head home straight". But staying disciplined with those things, especially in the season, is what has led me to stay in good condition.

For example, on a Monday I'd still be sore from the weekend, and tired as well. But if you can push through all the work you need to and do some extra work on Monday, and if you can do little bit on Tuesday, and do it again on Wednesday- that's three days, or four days of little bits. So by the time you get to the end of the week on the game day, because you've done 4 increments of extra work, have stay disciplined with your work- you feel a lot higher on the game day.

――Is that both mentally and physically?

I'd say it's probably more mental.

――You've mentioned about being disciplined with what you eat. What's your most favourite Japanese food?

I don't have it too often, but Okonomiyaki is my favourite. When I have it I love it with loads of sauce and mayonnaise...(laughs)

――What do you think your work ons are now?

To keep getting fitter and stronger. I can do a lot more work on breakdown, on both attack and defence. I can be more effective in cleaning out in attack, but I can also develop a skillset to jackal, or cause chaos in defence.

――Would you look into sizing up then?

Maybe, not too much though I don't want to get too heavy but I could perhaps strengthen my shoulders a bit more.

――Hendy is perhaps a good example in breakdowns or jackals?

Yes, and especially when Sam Cane came in at the start of the season I tried to pick his brain a little bit. Hendy's awesome, Kai (Yamamoto), and Oke (Oketani) are good jackalers in the team. They have been helping me and I probably need to get more reps.

――What is your goal for this season?

I want to win the championship. Some things are out of my control, so I keep turning up, keep working hard, recover hard, and do everything I can to contribute to the team doing the best we can, and putting the best performance out there.

――You've been playing all games since the back end of last season. Is this what you envisioned?

Yes, it has been the goal, I wanted to play this season. I knew it was going to take a lot of work to continue playing, and because there's some healthy competition going on among the midfielders, I wasn't sure what was going to happen. I knew throughout the off season and preseason I had to work hard to be able to compete with the likes of Taiga (Ozaki), Joe( Kamana), or Tony (Alofipo). There is a lot of good players.

――Thinking ahead, if you continue to play in Japan you may be eligible to play for Japan.

It is in the back of my mind. It'd be exciting to one day represent the country my girlfriend comes from, and make both of our families proud. That's still very far in the future, and I just want to focus on right now and do as well as I can this season to win the cup.

――You seem to like your current hair style, do you like your hair long?

I like long hair. It's probably the easiest way to keep the hair out of my face so that's why I tie it up.I wouldn't cut it short for another bit (laughs)

(Interview & Structure: Kazuyoshi Hariya /Translator: Shino Kusunose)
[Photo: Aki Nagao]