Japan sevens coach Hitoshi Inada admits that his side's participation in two rounds of the HSBC World Rugby Women's Sevens Series 2016-17 was an eye-opening but useful experience.
Having successfully won the Hong Kong qualifiers in early April, to regain their place as a core team on the series for 2017-18 after a one-year absence, the Sakura Sevens got a taste of what is to come when they were invited to take part in the fourth and sixth rounds of the series, on home soil in Kitakyushu later that month and in Clermont-Ferrand in June.
While results did not go their way, with a clean sweep of defeats in the pool stages of each tournament, it is hoped that the lessons learned will stand them in good stead when they compete for a ticket to San Francisco in the Asia Rugby Women's Sevens Series in September and October.
“The gap between us and the world’s top teams was bigger than I expected,” admitted Inada.
Japan suffered three straight defeats to New Zealand, Russia and France in their pool in Kitakyushu before narrowly losing to Spain and Brazil in the classification rounds to end up in 12th place.
In Clermont-Ferrand two months later, Japan again suffered a whitewash. However, this time they kept New Zealand scoreless for most of the second half before eventually conceding a try at the death. The final scoreline of 21-10 in the Black Ferns Sevens’ favour was a vast improvement on the 31-0 loss suffered in their previous meeting at Kitakyushu.
Japan went on to beat England 25-7 in the semi-finals of the Challenge Trophy but were edged 15-14 by Spain in the final to wrap up the competition in France in 10th place.
“We learned in Kitakyushu that we won’t be able to compete at this level unless we do the fundamentals properly. We have worked on them since then,” Inada explained.
“At Clermont-Ferrand, we saw evidence of what we had worked on, although the opposition did not always field some of their top players. We had longer periods in attack and made fewer mistakes against New Zealand. If we can play like that, we can have a better chance.”
The 34-year-old Japanese coach said increased exposure to top-level sevens could only help the development of his side.
“Our players rarely had an opportunity to play against a world’s top team before. They now know the difference in standards. Results weren’t positive, but it was worth playing in those rounds to help develop our game,” he noted.
Inada has started making some changes on and off the pitch in an attempt to raise the bar. He keeps an eye on what his players eat and how they recover even when they are not with the national team. It is all part of preparations for the coming major international tournaments, including the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, where Japan are aiming to win a medal on home soil.
“How can we beat top teams in the world? We are working hard but every other team is also working hard, so we need our progress to be faster so that we can overtake them,” Inada said.
“We need to have more varied and better moves than our opponents, otherwise we won’t be able to win at the top competitions like the world sevens series and the Olympics. I’d like to improve our endurance as well as muscular power. I also want to work on areas such as nutrition and recovery.”
WORLD CUP BID
Starting on 23-24 September in Incheon, the Asia Rugby Women's Sevens Series doubles as the regional qualifier for RWC Sevens 2018 with the top two teams booking their place in San Francisco. The second round is in Sri Lanka on 14-15 October.
“We will prepare for the Asian Series, of course, but our main focus is finishing among the top eight sides on next season’s women’s sevens series. If we can develop our game to that level by this September, I think we can produce a good result in the Asian Series.”
Some of Inada’s players also play for the Sakura 15 and he will be with the team at Women's Rugby World Cup 2017 as strengthening and conditioning coach. He believes that the crossover is mutually beneficial.
“The basic parts of the game in sevens and 15s are not much different. We can introduce things that worked well with the sevens to the 15s or the other way round. We also can check the condition of our players while we are with the 15s, which is good for us, too,” Inada said.
Before finalising his squad for the Asian Series, Inada admits that he will have to check on the fitness of the sevens players who will have played at WRWC 2017 in Ireland, from 9-26 August.
“It’s hard to tell what the condition of our sevens players will be after the WRWC. So, we’ll build our team without them in July and August and make it good enough to win World Cup (Sevens) qualification,” he said.
“I know we have many things to work on and we need to address those areas quickly if we want to catch up. But we will take one thing at a time and work with a clear vision. I think that’s important,” the young Japan coach noted.