Japan coach Lesley McKenzie believes her players are “built to succeed in 15s” and the squad are certainly starting to repay that faith in them.

Part of McKenzie’s mission with the Sakura Fifteen is to raise the profile of the 15s game for women in the country, and recent results would suggest they are on track to achieving that goal.

An impressive tour of Australia in May, in which they won all three of their matches, including tests against both Fiji and the Wallaroos, was followed by a series draw against South Africa at home last month.

Not even defeat in the second test against the Springbok Women could dent the positive mood around the Sakura Fifteen as they prepare for a two-match series against Ireland and then Rugby World Cup 2021.

“One of the things that we really want to do… is grow the profile of the 15s game for women in Japan,” McKenzie told World Rugby.

“We want people to see how good they can be. So, that's certainly part of the mission – they're certainly built to succeed.”

Working hard for each other

Having sat out international competition for two years during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Sakura Fifteen spent all the time that they could working together on the training pitch.

That helped to strengthen morale and instill confidence in a young squad. The average age of the team that won the first test against South Africa last month was less than 24.

Confidence is something that has only improved since several members of the squad left Japan to test themselves in the English Premier 15s and Super W in Australia and enjoyed some success.

“It's a group that likes to work for each other and it's a group of people who are enthusiastic about their new confidence in their abilities to impose themselves on the international game,” McKenzie said.

“That's new for Japan, and that's down to the amount of work that they've put in for each other and for themselves. Look, I think they are starting to feel that bit of influence that they could possibly take with them into what the game could look like.

“We've got decent handling skills, we've got a high level of fitness, we've got an ability when we're on to be accurate and I think those things are attractive in the women's game right now. They're attractive in any game or rugby right now.”

In McKenzie’s long-term plan, even losing to the Springbok Women is seen as an opportunity to learn and re-evaluate ahead of RWC 2021.

“It’s going to give us the opportunity for the adjustment that we need. I think it'd be much worse to have a false sense of security or confidence in what we're doing without really getting an opportunity to take some hard reflection,” McKenzie said.

“Because we're a young squad and because a lot of this is still new for us, to have multiple tests and certainly multiple tests in a year, it's so good for us.

“I hesitate to gush, but [losing] is not a problem in the big scheme of things. It's not really a bad thing at all. But that said, losing tests sucks still.”

Raising the intensity

Next up for the Sakura Fifteen is a two-test series against Ireland, which kicks off at Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa on 20 August.

Ireland have not qualified for Rugby World Cup 2021 but they finished fourth in the Women’s Six Nations 2022 and narrowly beat Japan in Dublin last November.

Certainly, McKenzie believes it is a “major tour”. “It’s a testament to where the girls have gotten the game that we can attract teams like South Africa and Ireland who are two really well-established nations,” she said.

“That's exciting for us to hold that to show people that level of the women's game here. I'm sure it's exciting for [Ireland] as well, it's not often you get to tour Japan.”

McKenzie added: “It's probably the right games for us at this moment. We know it's going to be tough.

“We know they're coming in on a high, really wanting to make a statement about where their programme is headed.

“So, that means it's going to be good emotion, good intensity. There's going to be players showing everything they have to claim a place in that programme going forward. And that's the kind of intensity that we need to prepare us for a World Cup because it's the same thing there.”

Looking ahead to RWC 2021 in October, Japan have been drawn in Pool B alongside Canada, the USA and Italy.

The Sakura Fifteen have only ever won one pool stage match at Rugby World Cup, against Sweden in 1994, however, McKenzie is hopeful her players can improve markedly on that record in New Zealand.

“We want to win our three games,” she said. “I assume every team wants to win their three games in the pools, but we genuinely do.

“With the 12-team format, the reality is that sometimes math can take a quarter-final spot out of your hands.

“But… rather than think about a quarter-final spot, [if we] instead just focus on winning some games of rugby, that's probably the better way for us to look at it.”