The Asia Rugby Women’s Championship serves as a dress rehearsal for Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017 and will provide both defending champions Japan and Hong Kong with vital preparation time ahead of the 9-26 August showpiece in Ireland.
Japan welcome Hong Kong to the Shiroyama Athletic Field in Odawara on Saturday before travelling to Hong for the return fixture on 15 July.
“These games are a great opportunity as they come so close to the World Cup,” admitted Hong Kong coach Jo Hull. “We are really lucky to have this competition to fine-tune our preparations for Ireland.”
With barely a month to go until Hong Kong make their World Cup debut in Ireland against Canada, Hull will hand a test debut to Kelsie Bouttle in a side that has plenty of experience in the likes of centre Adrienne Garvey, who captains the team in Japan, and flanker Christine Gordon.
“The selection reflects our preparations for the World Cup, which is our only focus at the moment. Everything we’re doing is building towards being ready for the first match against Canada next month,” Hull said.
Despite having one eye on that opening Pool A match on 9 August, Hull is demanding results from her side in this Asia Rugby Women's Championship.
“This is international rugby and we are representing Hong Kong, so results matter. We started to close the gap over the week against Spain (during a two-match tour in May) and now we need to do that against Japan.”
Hong Kong have been closing the gap to Japan, following up 39-3 and 30-8 losses in last year's tournament with a much closer 20-8 loss in the Asia/Oceania qualifying tournament for Women's Rugby World Cup 2017 last December. It is more than three years, though, since they last tasted success against the Sakura 15s.
“This is a big test of our progress for the World Cup,” said Hull. “There has been a clear message to the girls selected about accountability and we’re putting a premium on efficiency and accuracy. Each game is about getting us one step closer to how we want to play on the world stage.
“While the squad has really come into their own over the past six months, at this stage of the campaign, there are no second chances. The players have to be accountable, plain and simple. They know and accept that.”
Japan come into the Asia Rugby Women's Championship on the back of an impressive 52-10 win over a young Wales team and two narrow losses to Ireland in trial matches in June, and will want to show further improvements with their first WRWC appearance since 2002 fast approaching.
“Japan have had some good results and they should be proud of themselves. They are a good team and are very disciplined,” Hull added.
With almost 13 points separating Japan in 14th from Hong Kong in 23rd in the World Rugby Women's Rankings, the Sakura 15s cannot improve their rating with victory over Hong Kong in Odawara. However, Japan will fall between two and three places depending on the margin of defeat with a win by more than 15 points worth a two-place rise to Hong Kong when the rankings update on Monday at 12 noon UK time.