Former Gunnedah schoolboy, Ben Gunter is fresh off making his debut for the Cherry Blossoms in their 32-23 loss to the Wallabies on Saturday afternoon (AEDT).
While Japan failed to secure the victory, it was a momentous occasion for Gunter who has been a fixture in the Japanese training squad ever since winning the Top League with the Panasonic Wild Knights earlier in the year. He was even recognised as the best no.6 in the league with his selection into the ‘Best 15’.
In June, Gunter’s hard work and dedication finally paid off when he was selected in Japan’s 52-man training squad for the British and Irish Lions Test in June. He was later chosen in the final 36-man squad, but did not feature in any of the games in the series.
Speaking to the Gunnedah Times, Gunter explained why he wasn’t disheartened when he saw his name missing from the team sheets.
“I went on the tour earlier this year and I unfortunately didn’t get to play but instead of sulking, I said it’s okay and that I need to work towards reaching the goal of becoming part of the 23 players,” Gunter said.
“My mindset is to go week-by-week, that’s always been the way I think. People always say to set big goals, which is true to an extent but for me, I prefer the smaller steps.
“When I first came to Panasonic here in Japan, it was to get into the 23 that play each week. I then came off the bench and I said I want to be a starter and I did that.
“Then it was to be the best number six not just for Pana but in the Top League and I accomplished that last season. From then it just blew up and here I am playing for Japan.”
The timing could not have come any better for Gunter, debuting against the country he grew up in and then the following day, celebrating his 24th birthday, it was almost like an early birthday present for the young no.6.
Gunter spoke about the nerves heading into the blockbuster game against the Wallabies.
“I had one of the best early birthday presents you can get and I couldn’t have asked for a better day, if we pulled off a win that would have been the icing on the cake, but I don’t want to be greedy,” he said.
“Playing Australia probably made the nerves worse, because debuting at that level is itself a great but nerve-wracking experience. To play the country where I grew up and to get a start – everything just piled up and there was more pressure.
“I welcomed it and I enjoyed the challenge, it’s a feeling I can’t quite describe. It did have a big impact on my nerves but I was so excited and this was a great opportunity for me to prove a lot of people wrong in both Australia and around the world. I also proved a lot to myself.”
It was a back-and-forth match with Gunter appearing for 50 minutes before being subbed off the field. The now 24-year-old flanker, was impressive in his first appearance for his adopted country, however, in reflection, Gunter saw plenty of reasons for improvement as Japan heads to Europe on Friday for three Test matches.
“I’m pretty harsh on myself with my own game but if you ask any of my family they are obviously going to be a little biased and say I played well,” Gunter said.
“I always call my sister to ask her how I played and she never lies to me, she tells it how it is. She said I had a good game and didn’t look out of place. I think overall I had an okay game, there was a couple mistakes I knew I made from our game plan, the excitement does get to you. I had messages from family and friends in Gunnedah and other places in Australia, I felt like I had to do so much to give back to everybody who has helped and supported me along the way.”
Gunter’s coach at Panasonic Wild Knights is former Wallabies coach Robbie Deans who offered the no.6 some advice heading into Saturday’s match.
“I spoke to Robbie during the week, before I was selected and I just told him how I’m feeling,” Gunter said.
“He told me ‘you’re an international player this is nothing different for you, this isn’t going to be a big step, you’ve played these types of players week in, week out in Japan’.
“That gave me confidence because Robbie’s always been a guy who says things black and white and he’s obviously had a lot to do with my development and as a rugby player I wouldn’t be where I am without him.”
Despite being asked about playing against his fellow countrymen on Saturday, Gunter expressed what the country of Japan means to him.
“This country just keeps on giving and this opportunity to represent them is just another gift,” he said.
“What Japan’s done for me as a rugby player and as a person, I couldn’t thank this country enough.”
The Cherry Blossoms will line up against Ireland in Dublin on November 6, a match in Lisbon to face Portugal on November 13 and a finish to their tour with a meeting against Scotland at Murrayfield on November 20.