For the first time since 2018 Japan will line up as a core team when the women’s HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2023 gets underway in Dubai on 2 December.
Their place on the Series was confirmed on Sunday when they turned in a highly impressive performance to beat Poland in the World Rugby Sevens Challenger Series 2022 final in Santiago, Chile.
Chiharu Nakamura scored the opening Sakura Sevens try in the 17-0 win, and she summed up the mood in the squad as she was interviewed following the final whistle. “Finally, we’ve done it!” she told viewers.
Nakamura was captain the last time Japan possessed a ticket to every women’s Series event but she proved she is very much part of the team’s present as she worked tirelessly across three intense days at Estadio Santa Laura.
Japan were imperious from their very first match, the second of the Challenger Series, when they ran in eight tries – four of which were scored by Wakaba Hara – to beat Mexico 44-5.
Victories against Colombia and Kazakhstan followed in Pool F before Belgium were beaten 31-0 in the quarter-finals.
Kenya gave the Sakura Sevens a fright in the semi-finals, Janet Okello’s try cutting the Lionesses’ deficit to two points with less than two minutes to go.
However, Hara put the stamp on a 22-15 win for Japan, and a place in the final, with her third try of the match and 10th of a prolific tournament.
Bar an early break that led to Nakamura’s opening try, Hara was kept quiet in the final, but the resolute Japanese rarely looked in trouble against Poland, the Rugby Europe Women’s Sevens Championship 2022 winners.
The Sakura Sevens dug in when they needed to, including an energy-sapping stand midway through the first half, and took their chances when they presented themselves.
Captain Yume Hirano and Michiyo Suda supplied exceptional finishes either side of half-time to add to Nakamura’s score and ultimately take Japan beyond Poland’s reach. Having waited four years, Japan were a core team on the Series once again.
“There were various kinds of extra pressures around them, but our players played hard to show our brand of rugby,” coach Takashi Suzuki said.
“This victory came from hard work from all of them. This is the start for us, and we’d like to get together as a team and work hard again to move on to our next stage.”
COMPETING AGAINST THE WORLD
It was not only the players on the ground in Santiago who helped Japan get back to where they wanted to be.
A shadow squad, the Sevens Development Squad [SDS], has been working alongside the Sakura Sevens in Japan, providing opposition in training matches and helping the players reach peak condition for the Challenger Series.
“I am proud of our team-mates and team staff, all of us who have kept working hard through to the very last minute,” Hirano said.
“I am also thankful to our colleagues of the SDS who took a role as our opponents and played hard against us in our preparation.
“I can tell you that our determination to qualify for the World Series in this tournament was so firm and far stronger than any other teams, for sure.
“We were able to put all the feelings into our performance, and that has helped us clinch the tournament.”
Before Japan can return to the Series in Dubai in December, there is the not-so-insignificant matter of Rugby World Cup Sevens 2022 and a round of 16 match against Olympic bronze medallists, Fiji.
Having tasted victory at Estadio Santa Laura, Hirano believes her team-mates will only get better as they switch their focus to Cape Town and then the Series.
“Now, finally we can stand on the starting line to compete against the world,” she added. “We’ll move on to develop ourselves from here.
“We are playing in Rugby World Cup Sevens next month. We’ll refresh ourselves to set our focus and get together as a team to have a good preparation for that.”