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Cambridge’s Varsity Match No 8 switches sides after playing for Oxford 15 years ago

Makoto Tosa
Makoto Tosa is playing for Cambridge in Saturday's Varsity Match at Saracens. 15 years on from winning his Oxford Blue at Twickenham

The Cambridge No 8 for Saturday’s Varsity match is not your typical Oxbridge back-row forward.

In 2009, Makoto Tosa came off the bench for Oxford as they were beaten 31-27. In doing so he became only the third ever Japanese player to have played in the Varsity. Fifteen years later, the 37-year-old has swapped allegiances owing to a MBA at Cambridge to prepare for life as a director of rugby in Japan’s top flight. His move to the lighter shade of blue did not go down too well with his old Oxford team-mates, but that did not stop Tosa.

Even more extraordinary than representing both sides in the prestigious fixture is Tosa’s journey between appearances. Tosa was diagnosed with epilepsy in March 2012, after he had been a surprise inclusion in Eddie Jones’ Japan training squad. A year later, Tosa had open brain surgery, before returning to professional rugby. It is believed he was just the second person to have done so.

“I had beers with my Green Rockets lads the day we got the Japan squad announcement. It was a massive night. In the shower room back at the club I fell over, bubbles were coming out of my mouth, my eyes were rolling around in my head,” Tosa recalls.

At first his team-mates thought he was just drunk, even possibly joking around. In fact, Tosa had suffered an epileptic seizure. He woke up in an ambulance on the way to hospital where his brain was scanned and a diagnosis of brain tumour-related epilepsy followed.

“I didn’t know what epilepsy was. I didn’t even know what a brain tumour was,” Tosa explains. “I asked: ‘Can I still play rugby?’ The doc told me: ‘I’m not sure, maybe your club, your company, your family will guide what direction you go.’”

He was put on medication for more than a year to combat the seizures, but to little avail. His mental health seriously deteriorated.

“I was a very unbalanced man at that time… In Japan, having epilepsy isn’t really a good idea, people try to hide their condition because it’s embarrassing. I was very anxious, very down, and felt I couldn’t come back to rugby. I didn’t tell anyone. That eventually became real pressure on me, I couldn’t speak out about what I was feeling inside and needed real help,” says Tosa.

Ultimately, open brain surgery – a temporal lobectomy – was the only option.“I was the first case in Japan of a man having brain surgery and returning to elite contact sport, maybe the second case in the world after Julian Huxley,” he says.

Tosa credited Huxley, who played Super Rugby for a decade and was capped nine times by the Wallabies, with having helped him to make the decision to have surgery; incidentally carried out while Jones was in the same hospital recovering from a stroke.

“In the Green Rockets changing room one time, the guy sitting next to me was Gareth Delve, the former Wales international; he knew Huxley. He told me: ‘Oh, Tosa I know the guy who had the same stuff, he returned to Super Rugby. I can link you up with him.’ I spoke with him [Huxley] and decided to have surgery.”

But surgery in late 2013 was not the end of Tosa’s mental struggle as he became worried about being forced into another surgery through a concussion or a head collision reopening his surgical wounds. Central to overcoming that fear were his efforts to raise awareness about epilepsy, a move inspired by former Premier League striker, Jay Bothroyd, who played in Japan between 2015 and 2021.

“While I was struggling, Bothroyd fell over with the same thing and spoke out immediately when journalists asked him what happened. He’s a figure I admire, I did some charity stuff with him when he was in Japan, he’s quite famous in Japanese football,” Tosa explains.

“When I made my return, I thought speaking out would encourage other people with the same condition to speak out. I told them: ‘You’re not alone, I’m a guy who had the same issue, you can do whatever you want.’ Japanese people are very shy, but I got text messages saying ‘arigatou’… That pushed me to come back and play harder.”

Tosa’s return to rugby went from strength to strength. After leaving the Green Rockets, he played in Australia’s Shute Shield for one season, before returning to Japan to captain the Mitsubishi DynoBoars from 2017 to 2023 in the Japanese premiership. In that time, he played against some world-class talent, including Jerome Kaino and Beauden Barrett.

Although he will be in the second year of his MBA at Cambridge next year, this is likely to be Tosa’s final match, whatever the result. But being on the winning side feels somewhat incidental given the journey Tosa has been on.

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