Japan may not have played on the Women’s Rugby World Cup stage since the 2002 edition, but captain Misaki Suzuki is hoping they can put that record straight this week and secure Asia’s place at France 2014.
Suzuki, who was handed the Japanese captaincy last year at the tender age of 20, will lead her country into the Asian qualifier for Women’s Rugby World Cup 2014, knowing they have to first beat Hong Kong and then likely hosts Kazakhstan to earn their place.
“We will play not only for ourselves but also for former players who have built a foundation of Japanese women’s rugby and have played for the country in the past,” explained the hooker, one of five players in the squad who also played at RWC Sevens 2013 in June.
“They will play together in our hearts and by qualifying for Women’s Rugby World Cup 2014 we can provide a new dream and a goal for the younger girls in Japan.
“Rugby is not as popular as some women’s sports such as soccer, basketball or volleyball but it is rapidly gaining recognition in Japan. Qualification for WRWC 2014 will definitely boost the development of women’s rugby in Japan, so we need the result in Almaty.”
Japan have certainly had plenty of preparation time together as a squad before departing for the Kazakhstan capital with three camps, the first two over three and four days and the most recent a 12-day camp in Sugadaira, a town which has more than 100 training pitches.
While in these camps, the Japanese women visited or invited a number of university men’s Sevens teams for joint training sessions to help them get ready for the physicality they can expect from the bigger and stronger Kazakhstan players.
This has been a focus for coach Mitsutake Hagimoto, who played for Japan in the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987 and has previously coached the Brave Blossoms. He has stressed to his players the importance of taking individual responsibility in the matches.
“Even though rugby is a team sport, it all starts from one v one. If you don’t take your responsibility, someone else must come to cover. If that happens, you can never beat your bigger and faster rivals,” explains Hagimoto.
“We may not be able to beat Kazakhstan physically, so we will surpass them in numbers. We believe the fitness level of our players are better than theirs thanks to the intensive fitness training programme of our Sevens team.”
Japan have beaten Kazakhstan in qualifying for the two Women’s Rugby World Cup Sevens, but lost the last two qualifiers for the Fifteens’ showpiece event, losing 19-3 in 2005 and then 43-5 four years later.
That gap between the sides, though, had narrowed to 17-8 when the sides met last year and Japan are hoping to come out on this time and take their place alongside the world’s 12 top women’s teams in Paris next year.
“We are now building a Japanese style of rugby,” explained Suzuki. “All the players have been training very seriously, everyone is trying very hard to step up. It’s very important to play our style of rugby no matter who the opponent is.
“It will be a hard fought match against Hong Kong, we have to play steadily. Kazakhstan is the number one team in Asia and it will be the match with a WRWC berth at stake, so I expect that is going to be a very, very tough match.”
Eleven years may have passed since Japan played on the WRWC stage, but they attended the 2010 event in England – playing against a couple of English clubs at the same time – and returned home with a sense of what they needed to aspire to.
“By attending WRWC 2010 in England we could witness how accurate the plays of the top teams were. In order to play on the same stage, we’re required to not only be physically stronger but also be able to play with more accuracy,” explained Suzuki.
“If you want to beat the world’s top teams, you have to grow faster.
“By experiencing the unique atmosphere of the Women’s Rugby World Cup final, I have a much stronger feeling that I want to play against the world’s best teams and show Japanese rugby to the world.
“I want to play on that stage with our team.”
The action gets underway at the Almaty Stadium on Wednesday when Japan face Hong Kong and Kazakhstan tackle Singapore. The winners will then meet to determine Asia’s WRWC 2014 qualifier on Saturday with the others meeting in the third place play-off.