Japan's women receive Olympic style send-off
No Japanese women's rugby player had ever experienced anything like it. In fact, it is likely that no women's rugby player ever had.
Before setting off to compete at round two of the new IRB Women’s Sevens World Series in Houston, USA, there they stood nervously in front of 108 journalists from 44 media outlets, including seven TV crews, in new jerseys adorned by two major sponsors.
Yoshiro Mori, the former Japanese Prime Minister and now the President of Japan's RFU, announced Taisho Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd. and Taiyo Life Insurance as the official sponsors to both the 15-a-side and Sevens Japan women's teams.
If this unprecedented break-through was not enough to rubber-stamp the occasion, the presence as master of ceremonies of Hanae Ito, a two-time Olympian swimmer, served as another reminder that Women’s Sevens is now an Olympic sport.
“I believe that the players now have a stronger awareness and sense of responsibility as a national player,” said Japan Women’s Sevens head coach, Keiko Asami.
“Just 10 years ago, I never imagined women’s rugby in Japan would get this magnitude of attention."
The team's captain, Chiharu Nakamura, was clearly a little nervous to be surrounded by so many members of the media. “It is a great honour to bear sponsors’ logos on our national jerseys. This will give us an extra support behind us,” she said.
As well as focusing on the Sevens challenge provided by the World Series, and ultimately the Olympics, the JRFU was also keen to underline the importance of this announcement to the 15-a-side game in Japan.
“Our main target is the Asian qualifiers for next year’s IRB Women’s Rugby World Cup, which is expected to take place later this year," said Mitsutake Hagimoto, head coach for the 15-a-side team. "Getting official sponsors will definitely boost our preparation.”
Since the inclusion of Rugby Sevens in the Olympic Games, the environment surrounding Women’s Sevens in Japan has undergone drastic change. The Ajinomoto NTC acts as a main training base and players train there on a regular basis with other Olympic athletes.
Before heading to Houston, the team also followed their annual ritual of travelling to the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (SDF) base in Funabashi City in the Chiba Prefecture to undergo a military-style boot-camp conducted by SDF.
Over the three days the players will be put through the basic training programme of the GSDF Rangers, for example endurance-running with heavy boots and jumping from the 11-metre high paratrooper training tower.
Houston represents Japan's maiden tournament in the IRB Women’s Sevens World Series and they will play against reigning World Cup Sevens champions Australia, Russia and Brazil in Pool C.
Japan Women Sevens: Chiharu NAKAMURA (captain), Chikami INOUE, Emi ITO, Yuka KATASHIMA, Keiko KATO, Ayaka SUZUKI, Misaki SUZUKI, Yoko SUZUKI, Aya TAKEUCHI, Noriko TANIGUCHI, Makiko TOMITA.