Japan’s young guns are determined to make their mark at what will be the country’s first Women’s Rugby World Cup since 2002. Almost half of Goshi Arimizu’s Dublin-bound squad are aged between 17 and 21, with only two 30-somethings included in the travelling party.
Head Coach: Goshi Arimizu
Team Captain: Seina Saito
Women’s Rugby World Cup Record: 1991 (Plate quarter-finalists), 1994 (Eighth), 2002 (Thirteenth)
Current World Ranking: 14th
WRWC 2017 Fixtures:
Pool C –
France v Japan, Billings Park, UCD, 7.45pm, Wednesday, August 9
Ireland v Japan, UCD Bowl, 5.15pm, Sunday, August 13
Australia v Japan, Billings Park, UCD, 5pm, Thursday, August 17
Semi-Finals, Kingspan Stadium/Ranking Games, Queen’s University, Tuesday, August 22
Finals, Kingspan Stadium/Ranking Games, Queen’s University, Saturday, August 26
Best WRWC Moment: A lot of the current Japan squad were not even born when their national side finished eighth at the 1994 Women’s Rugby World Cup in Scotland. Having been held scoreless and winless at the inaugural World Cup three years previously, Japan returned to post their maiden victory at this level – a 10-5 success against Sweden in Melrose on the way to finishing eighth overall. They lost 11-3 to Ireland in a 7th-8th place play-off.
Soundbites: Goshi Arimizu – “Since I became head coach in 2014, I have been preparing the team with a multi-staged plan. It’s a team that uses the pitch as widely as possible to move the ball. They mainly focus on the set piece, breakdown, team attack and defence.
“We started the (sleepover) training camps in April, and the team as a whole is beginning to take shape. They are beginning to have the mindset of the national team. France, Ireland and Australia, they are all strong teams. We are looking forward to the challenge.
“We are aiming to reach the top eight. These players are the ones who are capable of competing hard in tough matches against international powerhouses on the world’s big stage.
“No one in our squad knows the reality of tough battles at the Women’s Rugby World Cup. Reaching the top-eight in the World Cup is an unknown world for Japanese rugby, too, but we’d like to make it for sure with our players and staff members.”
Misaki Suzuki – “It was the work of all the generations that helped us to qualify for the World Cup this time. Everyone knew it was crucial to win in order to reach the tournament. Some were nervous, others were calm.
“Although we are a small team, we hope to win by our focus, strategies and organisational strength as a team. Unlike Japan, my impression is that the cities (in Ireland) are full of greenery and are very beautiful, with many historical buildings. I’m looking forward to seeing that. I’d also like to have a good beer there after the games!”
Did You Know?: Versatile back Makiko Tomita spent time in her younger years, studying and gaining valuable rugby experience during a spell in Australia. The Setagaya star, who turns 26 on Wednesday, took up the game in high school, practicising her skills in the morning and evening with her father who had captained his university rugby team. Tomita played for the Japan Sevens team at the Rio Olympics last year, along with fellow WRWC 2017 squad members Ayaka Suzuki and Aya Nakajima.
Team Profile: Ultra fit, fast and focused on causing a stir in Pool C. Almost two years on from their male counterparts’ shock Rugby World Cup win over South Africa, the Japan Women are looking to do likewise and upset some higher-ranked opponents at WRWC 2017.
There is much positivity surrounding Japanese Women’s rugby at the moment. In the last year alone, they have qualified for their first World Cup tournament since 2002, won their third Asian 15s Championship title in-a-row, competed in the Olympic Games Sevens in Rio and also regained core status for the 2017/18 World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series.
The Sakura 15s defeated Fiji and Hong Kong late last year to book their WRWC place – Kazakhstan, South Africa and Samoa were notable absentees from the qualification process – and they gave a glimpse of their potential when running Ireland close in two June trial games at UCD. They looked right at home at the Bowl and Billings Park where there were two tight margins – 24-22 and 24-15 – and the visitors accumulated seven tries (including one in each match from lively 20-year-old winger Honoka Tsutsumi).
Japan’s pre-World Cup expedition to Europe also saw them thrash a young Welsh outfit 52-10 in a one-sided Test, laying down quite a marker with prop Saki Minami scoring her second try of the tour and backs Akari Kato, who is on the stand-by list, and Iroha Nagata both bagging braces. Their high rate of try-scoring continued in July’s Asian Championship as Hong Kong were hammered twice in home and away clashes – 58-0 and 60-19.
Those results on Japan’s first tour to Europe since 2004 will have their Pool C opponents on their toes. Tom Tierney’s Ireland will certainly know what to expect from the Japanese, but the France and Australia camps have both labelled Goshi Arimizu’s well-drilled side as something of ‘an unknown quantity’ ahead of the opening round on Wednesday, August 9 when the Asian champions face les Bleues at Billings Park.
France, Ireland and Australia are ranked fourth, fifth and sixth respectively in the current World Rugby Rankings. Japan may be 14th but, as captain Seina Saito explains, they want to feature prominently when the history of WRWC 2017 is written.
The Pearls front rower, who is Japan’s most-capped player with 16 appearances to date, said: “Our men’s national team moved us and gave us hope at the Rugby World Cup in 2015. We also want to make sure this tournament will be remembered by many people.
“For the sake of our predecessors who have led Women’s rugby this far and those who will take on future roles in Japanese Women’s rugby, we want to achieve our aim of reaching the top-eight in Ireland, and then hand it over to RWC 2019 in Japan.”
Saito and her team-mates recognise the importance of growing both 15s and Sevens nationally as Japan gear up to host the 2019 World Cup and the 2020 Olympics, and a successful WRWC campaign could do wonders for participation rates and the level of support the increasingly popular Sakura receive back home.
They make the trip to Ireland with comfortably the youngest squad in the tournament – they have an average age of 23. High school scrum half Moe Tsukui only turned 17 at the end of March and is one of six teenagers in the travelling party – five of whom are backs. More than half of the squad have played five of less Tests so far, but Arimizu is quietly confident that his troops will prosper if they ‘play the Japanese way and keep the ball moving’. He says breakdown skills, contact skills and ball retention were foremost in his mind when he selected the final squad.
Their pace, accuracy on the ball and stamina are obvious strengths of this Japan team, while their forwards having been working hard to add bulk with the expectation that the heavier French, Irish and Australian packs will try to outmuscle them. Their X-factor player up front is Fijian-born number 8 Mateitoga Bogidraumainadave (pictured above), a barnstorming carrier who tips the scales at 93kg and was one of the best players on show when Japan won the Women’s Sevens Dublin tournament at UCD in 2015.
Saito added: “We’ve worked around the theme of making up for our difference in physiques compared to overseas players. My focus is on my physique and I have gained 10 kilograms. In terms of the forwards, against those players with twice our physical strength, we will not be able to get the ball if we cannot get the set piece right.
“It’s a very competitive pool. The Irish team, being the home team, seems to be the strongest to me in this pool. It will be very tough but we would still like to win. I’m looking forward to it. Our team name is ‘Sakura 15’ – I would like the fans to shout ‘Sakura 15’!” #BringIt
For more on the 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup, visit the tournament website – www.rwcwomens.com. Buy your match tickets for #WRWC2017 now on www.ticketmaster.co.uk/wrwc2017 and www.ticketmaster.ie/wrwc2017.
JAPAN WRWC 2017 Squad – Backs (12): Keiko Kato (Setagaya Ladies), Riho Kurogi (Arukas Queen Kumagaya), Mayu Shimizu (Nippon Sport Science Univ), Ai Tasaka (Arukas Queen Kumagaya), Moe Tsukui (The Second HS, Tokyo University of Agriculture), Honoka Tsutsumi (Nippon Sport Science Univ), Makiko Tomita (Setagaya Ladies), Iroha Nagata (Arukas Queen Kumagaya), Yumeno Noda (Arukas Queen Kumagaya), Eriko Hirano (Yokohama TKM), Wasana Fukushima (Otemon Gakuin Univ), Minori Yamamoto (Nippon Sport Science Univ).
Forwards (16): Makoto Ebuchi (Aoyama Gakuin Univ/Tokyo Phoenix RC), Mizuho Kataoka (Yokohama TKM), Seina Saito (Pearls) (capt), Ayano Sakurai (Nippon Sport Science Univ), Yui Shiozaki (Tokyo Phoenix RC), Yuki Sue (Arukas Queen Kumagaya), Ayaka Suzuki (Arukas Queen Kumagaya), Sayaka Suzuki (RKU Rugby Ryugasaki Grace), Misaki Suzuki (Tokyo Phoenix RC), Maki Takano (Nippon Sport Science Univ), Aya Nakajima (Arukas Queen Kumagaya), Ai Hyugaji (Tokyo Phoenix RC), Maiko Fujimoto (Yokohama TKM), Mateitoga Bogidraumainadave (Arukas Queen Kumagaya), Saki Minami (Nippon Sport Science Univ), Aoi Mimura (Yokohama TKM).