Success vital for Japan in WRWC qualifier
By Zilia Papp
Japan coach Mitsutake Hagimoto has labelled next week's Asian qualifiers in Singapore to determine the final team at Women's Rugby World Cup 2010 as matches they "cannot afford to lose" if the Women's Game is to continue to develop in the country.
The Japanese are one of four teams who will hope to join defending champions New Zealand, hosts and 2006 runners up England, bronze medallists France, Canada, USA, South Africa, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Sweden and Australia at Women's Rugby World Cup from 20 August to 5 September next year.
Japan must first overcome hosts Singapore on Wednesday, 4 November to keep alive their qualification dreams, a side they have beaten in the last two year's Asian Women's Championship by margins of 20-7 in 2007 and 17-10 in 2008.
They will then face the winner of the other semi final between Hong Kong and Asian champions Kazakhstan, who beat Japan 19-3 four years ago to claim the region's place in the last Women's Rugby World Cup in Canada.
"We worked very hard to develop this team in the last eight years with this day in mind," admitted Hagimoto. "Since 2002 we haven't been able to play in a World Cup, so this time is crucial for the development of Japanese women's rugby. We cannot afford to lose."
However, while Japan's preparations have been focused on what they hope will be a final showdown with Kazakhstan on 6 November, they will not be underestimating the threat posed by Singapore and the home support they will garner at the Republic Polytechnic.
"Singapore has a very persistent, never-give-up attitude," said Noriko Kishida, chairperson of the Japan Women's Rugby Football Union. "Our game last year was very tight. We lost focus after our two initial tries, and Singapore fought well until the very end.
"Now, they also have home advantage in a hotter climate, so we are sure they are very well prepared. We have to give our best."
Signs of improvement
Nonetheless, the Japanese are confident that they have benefitted from the experiences garnered on their tour of Canada last month and their matches against club team Burnaby Lake and a British Columbia President's XV. They lost both matches, 25-24 and 38-0 respectively, but came away with plenty of positives for the Asian qualifiers.
"We definitely improved in our communication on the field, and in making adjustments during the game," explained veteran second row Chikako Sasaki, who like her fellow forward Angela Elting played for Japan at the 2002 Women's Rugby World Cup in Spain.
"We gained experience in defending against bigger opponents, so in case we face Kazakhstan in the finals, we learned that we cannot afford to lose pace in the tackle. We need to set up our defensive line quickly and use our advantage in speed."
Several of the players likely to be heading to Singapore with Japan were in action against each other last weekend with Phoenix-Nittai beating Setayaga Ladies 22-0 in Kumagaya in the Saitama prefecture to earn the 20th East Japan Women's Rugby Football Championship crown.
Phoenix-Nittai had eight national team players to Setagaya's four and established a 10-0 lead at half time with their policy of quick attack and spreading the ball wide resulting in tries for centre Rinako Yokoyama and wing Ayako Tanaka. The same tactic after the break yielded tries for Mio Nakamura and Mio Suzuki saw Phoenix-Nittai to the victory.
"There was no pressure, the last game at home. We just had fun," explained number 8 Elting. "This is what you want before you go to a serious international tournament."