Tongan-born Toetuu Taufa knows a thing or two about the Rugby World Cup. He represented Japan at the 2011 edition, and he is now supporting his native Tonga, competing at the ongoing tournament being held in the country where he now resides.
Taufa, who played 13 years with the Kintetsu Liners in Japan, travels with the 'Ikale Tahi as their liaison, helping the players deal with stress off the pitch so they can be at their peak performance at the sport's showpiece event.
"I know how Japanese and Tongan people think. What I'm doing for the players may seem really limited, but it makes a huge difference," Taufa recently told Kyodo News.
"I'm here to eliminate their stress, to help provide an environment where they can concentrate on the competition."
There is no concrete job description for the 38-year-old, but it includes interpreting, managing the team's schedule and even arranging the player's training equipment.
If his team decides to eat out, he finds a restaurant by taking into consideration the preferences of the players. If family members of a player arrive at an airport, he provides directions or even picks them up himself.
"It's my first time doing this, but it's a really important role," he said with an Osaka dialect he picked up during his years in the western Japan prefecture. "We have a schedule set, but it rarely goes according to plan."
Taufa, who moved to Japan in 2000 at the age of 20, was asked to take on the role by Tonga head coach Toutai Kefu, who also has connections with Japan, leading Top League club Kubota Spears. The 'Ikale Tahi are competing in a Pool C match in their eighth World Cup appearance, but they have never reached the knockout stage.
They opened their campaign with a pair of losses in Sapporo and Higashiosaka and will take on France and the United States later in the tournament.
While supporting Tonga is a special opportunity in itself, Taufa is still pleasantly surprised that the team play two of their games at Hanazono Rugby Stadium in Higashiosaka, where he spent most of his time with the Liners.
He also made his Japan debut in the city in 2009, years after he graduated from Nihon University, where he first played in Japan, and took Japanese nationality.
Speaking about Tonga playing two matches in the city where he has spent most of his career, Taufa said, "I think it's a miracle, but at the same time, there is a part of me that says it's fate. I'm still trying to figure out which it is," he said. "It might be a bit of both. I'm just really glad that I played with Kintetsu."
"It just motivates me even more to do my best to support the players."
While he drew the curtain on his playing career last year, Taufa has 22 caps for Japan and can offer perspective on how much the sport has developed since he moved to the country.
When Taufa went to New Zealand for the 2011 tournament, the Brave Blossoms, led by John Kirwan, were limited to a draw to Canada and three losses. But they won three matches at the 2015 edition in England, including their historic upset over South Africa, and their strong run continues at the ongoing tournament.
"I've seen the ups and downs of Japanese rugby. But one thing I know for sure is that it is totally different from what it was like when I came here," he said. "You can tell that the players are going into the pitch intending to win every match at the international level."
Japan has a strong rugby connection with Tonga. Like Taufa, several players have donned the red-and-white Brave Blossoms jersey. Asaeli Ai Valu and Amanaki Lelei Mafi are Tongan-born players currently in the squad led by Jamie Joseph.
While the relationship between the two countries is said to date back 30 years, Taufa said he is worried about the sport's development in Tonga as more and more talented players decide to play abroad.
"The environment in Japan is improving rapidly," he said, adding that it is a major attraction for those who take on the sport in the Pacific Island nation.
Despite the concern, he is pleased with Tonga's performance at the current World Cup. Their World Cup opener saw the team suffer a 35-3 loss to England on Sept. 22, but he said their effort inspired the crowd in Sapporo.
"England supporters were cheering for our team, you could hear people chanting 'Tonga, Tonga' and it was resonating in the venue," he said.
Taufa says the World Cup is all about that inspiration.
"Rugby is about giving hopes and dreams to people," he said. "I hope there will be more opportunities for players to actually meet children in Japan and interact during the tournament."
"After all, it really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The reason why I took up rugby was from watching really good players and thinking I want to be like them in the future. Rugby World Cup showed me that."