World Cup exposure for Japanese Women

(IRB.COM) Friday 3 September 2010
 World Cup exposure for Japanese Women
Japan's enthusiasm to improve has brought them to Guildford

Japan failed to qualify for Women's Rugby World Cup 2010, but that hasn't stopped the Asian side descending upon Surrey Sports Park to allow their players to sample first hand the World Cup experience and see the levels they need to aspire to if they are to compete with the best.

It's an intriguing strategy and one combined with two friendly matches against English club sides Richmond and Saracens, both of whom can boast a heavy representation of players at Women's Rugby World Cup 2010.

On Sunday though, training in the park to which a supermarket provides a slightly surreal back drop, will be traded for the Twickenham Stoop and the World Cup final - an excursion that for Women's Rugby Committee Chairwoman Noriko Kishida is all part of an invaluable experience for the players.

"We have come to England because it's a good opportunity for us to watch the highest level of Women's Rugby in the world," said Kishida. "There are many brand new players in the Japanese team and they do not know the highest level of Women's Rugby - the technique and skill - and it's fantastic.

"It's a good opportunity, it's the first time for us to play English teams. Japan is a small Island so we have no chance to play foreign countries. It's difficult to go to other countries or to invite teams, so this is a very good experience for us."

The Women's Game has made great strides in Japan since the first clubs were formed in 1983. Kishida was present when the sport took its first tentative steps all those years ago and also when the Women's Rugby Federation was founded in 1988, before it was officially recognised by the Japan Rugby Football Union in 2002.

Upward curve

It's been a long journey for the Women's Game, as well as for Kishida, who represented Japan at the World Cup in 1991 as a player before taking on the role of team manager at tournaments in 1994 and 2002.

"It took them a very long time to recognise us, they said rugby was too dangerous for women. For 14 years we did everything ourselves, we would go abroad for tournaments," said Kishida, who remarkable turns out for her club as a prop at the age of 64.

There's still some way to go, of course. The Women's Rugby Committee only formed as recently as April this year, but the barriers are slowly but surely being broken down.

From humble beginnings the game is definitely on the upward curve, with the number of clubs now exceeding 20, and with such forward thinking as illustrated by their very presence in Guildford, you certainly wouldn't rule out seeing Japan at Women's Rugby World Cup 2014.

Japan were present at the inaugural Women's Rugby World Cup in Wales in 1991, but it proved a sobering experience as they not only failed to register a victory in their three matches, but were unable to muster a single point, while conceding 112.

Three years later in Edinburgh would provide better memories though in the form of their first ever World Cup victory, a 10-5 win over Sweden. Spain eight years later would bring wins number two and three, over the Netherlands and Ireland respectively, not to mention bragging rights over their male counterparts.

Youth programme

"Good memories. In Spain we beat the Netherlands for our second victory in the World Cup, which was great because the Japan men's team have not won twice in World Cups - one victory and one draw," said Kishida.

Since then, Asian champions Kazakhstan have proved a formidable barrier to a possible fourth World Cup victory, but steps taken after 2002 at youth level are already beginning to bear fruit and Japan could soon be gracing the world stage once again.

In 2003, a youth development programme was rolled out across Japan's three rugby playing regions - Kanto, Kansai and Kyushu. On a monthly basis 10 to 17-year-olds are invited to attend and given fitness and speed tests before being placed with clubs.

They continue to train together on a monthly basis and twice a year are taken overseas to play teams from Australia, New Zealand and Canada. It's a programme that's already reaping the rewards with several members of the squad currently in Guildford having come through the system.

The introduction of Rugby Sevens into the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro should provide another shot in the arm for the Women's Game in Japan. A scenario that should ensure more resources being allocated to improve standards in the Women's Game and help them participate on such a global stage.

Like many countries, though, Japan suffers from a lack competitive international matches. In the last year they have played just two matches, firstly beating Singapore in World Cup qualifying only to then lose 43-5 to Kazakhstan and miss out on Asia's place at the tournament in England.

Refereeing dream

Another member of the Japanese travelling party who does know what it's like to play at a World Cup is Chihiro Koga, who was part of Japan's squad eight years ago in Spain.

But while most of the Japanese players will file out of the Twickenham Stoop on Sunday evening, regardless of the outcome, filled with dreams of one day hitting such heights, 34-year-old Chihiro now dreams of one day refereeing a World Cup final, having taken up the whistle six months ago.

Japan's trip to Guildford has proved an invaluable learning experience for her, allowing her to mix with the World Cup referees and gain an insight into how they approach the job.

"It's been very beneficial," she admitted. "I'm learning how to referee to aim for the next World Cup and the Olympics in 2016. I'd love to referee at a World Cup. I've talked to the referees who are here and they've been very helpful with advice.

"Their motivation is very high. I can tell they have prepared a lot for this, and it's great to see so many female referees."

It has been eight years since Japan last graced a Women's Rugby World Cup, but with an age grade programme bearing fruit and excursions to England to inspire the players, it could be sooner rather than later that before they return to the big stage, and Chihiro could be there to join them.