The Sakura Sevens will kick-off their HSBC Kitakyushu Sevens campaign on Saturday against world champions New Zealand, a totally different prospect to their opponent in their opening match in their last tournament in Hong Kong two weeks ago.
On that day, Japan began with an emphatic 54-0 defeat of Jamaica. There may be no comparison between these two opponents, but that win over Jamaica was more important than facing New Zealand this weekend for what it ultimately led to for Japan.
For that win was the first step on the road to winning the 12-team qualifying tournament in Hong Kong and securing a return to the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series in 2017-18 as a core team, a position they last occupied in 2015-16.
The Sakura Sevens are the invitational team at the Mikuni World Stadium this weekend and the hosts will face series leaders New Zealand, France and Russia, who all sit in the top seven places in the standings at the halfway stage of this season.
But that is exactly the challenge that Japan want, knowing that facing the world’s best teams is the only way to develop their game and help the younger players understand the standard on the international stage.
Challenge the best teams
“This is an opportunity to experience a world standard for those who didn’t play in the world series last time or the Rio Olympics, and they can do that at this time on Japanese soil, which is good with a long-term prospect,” said Sakura Sevens interim head coach Jin Inada.
“Comparing the Hong Kong tournament, the speed, power and skills are all a level up in our opponents here this time.”
The Sakura Sevens came straight to Kitakyushu from Hong Kong to prepare for the first women’s series event in Japan and Inada has noticed differences in those two weeks.
“We’d like to improve our attack and defence,” explained Inada. “Our team is getting better both physically and mentally. We are improving the communications and cohesion of our play between our younger players and the experienced players, which is getting better than what we had at the qualifying tournament.”
The Sakura Sevens squad features six player under the age of 20, including 17-year-olds Yume Hirano and Emii Tanaka, while Mayu Shimazu was one of their standout players in Hong Kong with a 57-point haul. However, that youth is combined with four members of their Rio 2016 Olympic squad, including their most experienced series players in Chiharu Nakamura and Ano Kuwai.
Captain Mio Yamanaka added: “We would like to show what we have and how we played in Hong Kong to qualify for the series. We would like to challenge the best teams in the world. The other teams in our pool are faster and more physical than us, therefore we will try to keep attacking for as long as we can.”