Few people are better placed to judge the rise and rise of Japanese rugby than Kensuke Iwabuchi.
A former Brave Blossom himself – he was the first Japanese player to play professionally in England – Iwabuchi now doubles as the chairman of the Japanese Rugby Football Union (JRFU) and the head coach of the men’s sevens team who will be competing at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
Japanese rugby has come a long way since the record 145-17 defeat at the hands of New Zealand at Rugby World Cup 1995, a match Iwabuchi played in.
We are now in a golden age of Japanese men’s rugby, which started with the famous win over South Africa at Rugby World Cup 2015, continued with the sevens team coming fourth at Rio 2016 and, most recently, reaching the Rugby World Cup last-eight for the first time on home soil two years ago.
Iwabuchi says Japan’s surprising run to the Rio Olympics’ semi-finals was inspired by 15s success at Rugby World Cup 2015 and believes we will see something similar this time around in Tokyo.
“Because we had a very good Rugby World Cup in 2015, one year before the Olympics, there was a good atmosphere in the team,” Iwabuchi, who was the team’s high performance manager in 2016, told World Rugby.
“When I was a player, of course we were trying to win whenever we played, but probably we didn’t believe we could actually beat them. But after RWC 2015, Japanese players started thinking we can win and we can beat them.
“In the team at the moment, there is the same feeling that we can beat anyone because we had such a good World Cup in 2019 so this is the same feeling as I had at the Rio 2016 Olympics.”
Iwabuchi made sure to bring his sevens players to see Japan during Rugby World Cup 2019.
“All the playing staff and staff saw the Japan games at the Rugby World Cup – against Russia and against South Africa – which were played at Tokyo Stadium, the same place where we will play sevens at the Olympics, so they have the experience of what they are going to have at the Olympics,” he said.
Iwabuchi is confident this cycle of success will continue to increase rugby’s popularity in Japan, particularly within the women’s game.
An unprecedented spotlight will be on the Sakura Sevens – Japan’s women’s sevens team – during the Tokyo Olympics, which the JRFU hopes leads to greater female participation in the sport
“It is very important for Japanese rugby that women and girls are getting involved in rugby,” said Iwabuchi.
“Here in Japan we have the Japan Women’s Sevens competition for the last seven years. Before this, the female playing population in Japan was around 2,000 but now it is up to 5,000, which is over double in six or seven years’ time.”
“We need more women going to watch games too. This happened at Rugby World Cup 2019, the stadiums and public viewing areas had a lot of women, which was awesome for rugby and is something we should be focusing on for the future.”
The Olympic men’s sevens competition will take place from 26-28 July, with the women’s tournament following on 29-31 July and the gold medal match happening on ‘Super Saturday’.
All the action will take place at Tokyo Stadium, which was the venue for the opening match of Rugby World Cup 2019.
Photo credit: Mike Lee