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Meet the artist who paints the world’s biggest rugby stars as adorable penguins

Calum Henderson talks to Yuko Inaba, the rugby-loving artist behind the delightful internet presence Nadegata Penguin.

In the cutthroat world of art it is important for an artist to find their niche. Yuko Inaba’s niche is painting rugby players as cute penguins.

The Tokyo watercolourist is prolific, sharing a new painting on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram every couple of days. The Sunwolves Twitter account retweeted one of them last week. It captured the viral moment the team picked up a broken-down car and shuffled it the side of the road on Auckland’s Tamaki Drive. In the painting, several penguins in rugby jerseys crowded around the stricken vehicle. Its licence plate read ‘SUNWOLVES’.

I’m no art expert, but I know what I like – and I bloody loved this painting. Digging a little further revealed a veritable treasure trove of other rugby players painted as penguins. Inaba’s Twitter account featured a handful of individual Sunwolves players’ penguin portraits. On Instagram, there was a watercolour of veteran lock Hitoshi Ono holding an enormous bottle of sake. Another depicted a penguin weeping with joy in front of the TV after watching Japan’s Brave Blossoms beat South Africa in the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

On the Nadegata Penguin Facebook page, I found the holy grail: Richie McCaw, as a rockhopper penguin, performing the haka.

Inaba’s website, nadegatapenguin.com, is entirely in Japanese. When I put the ‘About’ page through Google Translate, one of the translated sentences read like a kind of artist’s statement. It said: “It would be fun if a fat penguin was doing rugby.”

Inaba confirmed this sentiment in an email interview. “I thought it would be funny if a fat penguin were wearing a rugby jersey,” she wrote. “Rugby is a sport in which many people flock together cooperating with each other to make a try,” she elaborated. “Small penguins which flock together and exert all their strength for their lives seemed to me to resemble rugby matches, [so I] began to draw penguin rugby.”

While their online presence is relatively new, Inaba said she has been drawing Nadegata Penguins since she was in college, when she would watch rugby on television with her dad. “Nadegata means sloping shoulders,” she explained, adding in bashful parentheses “(because I have sloping shoulders…)” Most of her subjects are modelled on young Emperor penguins.

The artist, whose day job is at an architecture company (she draws at home after work or in the weekend), has been an avid rugby-watcher since she was a child growing up in the late 1980s. “Japanese rugby at that time was more popular than now,” she wrote.

As well as every major club game being shown live, one of the most popular television shows at that time was a teen drama series called School Wars – “a real story about a high school teacher who changed the bad boys team into the number one team in Japan.”

The show was based on the schoolboy exploits of Japan’s biggest rugby superstar, Seiji Hirao. Nicknamed ‘Mr Rugby’, the first five-eighth led the Kobelco Steelers to seven consecutive Japan Company Rugby Football Championship (the precursor to today’s Pro League) titles between 1988 and 1994.

“I was a big fan of Seiji Hirao,” Inaba wrote. “School Wars made me a rugby lover.” Hirao retired from rugby in 1995, after representing Japan at his third Rugby World Cup. He died last year, aged 53.

These days, Inaba’s favourite players are too numerous to list, but include most of the Sunwolves squad as well as All Blacks Dan Carter and Richie McCaw, and Scottish halfback Greig Laidlaw.

These players and more can now be found immortalised as cute, fat penguins on the artist’s Twitter and Instagram. If you want to see a Nadegata Penguin of your own favourite rugby player, Inaba confirmed she accepts commissions. The price of the artworks varies: “It depends on the size – and the number of penguins.”

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