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As the bottom-ranked core team on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2023, relegation is fast becoming a very real prospect for the Japan men’s team.
Having picked up just 10 points from the first seven rounds and with only four tournaments remaining, their time as members of the sevens elite appears to be fast running out.
Only the tournaments in Hong Kong, Singapore, London and Toulouse remain on the schedule and Japan currently find themselves in the one automatic relegation place.
Canada, who occupy the last of the relegation play-off places, are 10 points better off than them in the standings and it would take something remarkable for Japan to turn the situation around.
Head coach Simon Amor admits some harsh lessons have been learnt by a highly talented but raw team in what he describes as “the most competitive Series that he has ever known”.
Steep learning curve
“My two boys, who are 15 and 14, have played more sevens tournaments in their lives at those ages than every single one of the Japan team members apart from (Kameli Raravou Latianara) Soejima, the Fijian. So for every one of them, it is a learning journey,” said Great Britain’s silver medal-winning coach from the Rio Olympics.
“Their footwork and agility is sensational. But because of the lack of sevens experience, their ability to recognise space and when to use space and when to close space – is very, very low. So it is about constantly building pictures for them.
“In Sydney, the team was either up or just about level at half-time but in the second half teams always pulled away and that’s down to fitness and sevens experience and managing those key moments. It is completely different to coaching the Tom Mitchells and Dan Nortons of this world.”
One thing that gives Japan hope is that this Series is, according to Amor, the most unpredictable yet. So while Japan’s chances of remaining at the highest level of global sevens appear slim, it would be foolish to completely write them off.
“The World Series is so tough right now, it is brutally competitive, it is brilliant. So it is a tough place to learn,” said Amor, a four-time winner in Hong Kong, the next tournament on the Series (31 March-2 April).
“If this World Series has taught anyone anything, it is totally unpredictable. I think we had six different finalists in the first three rounds, which was incredible.
“it is the most competitive it has ever been. That isn’t hyperbole, everyone would say the same.
“Teams will rip you apart if you don’t get it right.
“You go into tournaments now and there are always two pools where you go, ‘oh my life, that looks incredibly difficult’.
“No one can pick a winner at the moment and that’s how it should be. The standard of rugby is incredible.
“It is an exciting time and it is what you want in an Olympic qualification year, for the Series to go right down to the wire. It is a brilliant position to be in.”
Sevens in a good place
Only once before in his coaching career – while at London Scottish in the RFU Championship – has Amor experienced the threat of relegation.
But the prospect of dropping out of the Series is not something that fazes him, his hope would be that Japan and young, exciting talents like centre Moeki Fukushi will come back better and stronger for the experience.
“They are changing the format of sevens and I think that is for the better, it needed to reimagine itself, I think that’s the language they’ve used, so that will be exciting for next year,” he said.
“And there is going to be a strong Challenger Series as well, which will be a great opportunity to grow the game at a lower level. If Japan is in that place, it is in that place, and it is a great place to keep on growing.”
With domestic sevens coaches in short supply, Amor has brought in former England stars Dan Norton and James Rodwell to assist him on an ad hoc basis and Australian Rio 2016 Olympic gold medallist, Alicia Lucas (née Quirk), has also worked with the squad.
If, in time, Japan becomes less reliant on coaching input from abroad, Amor will consider that a job well done.
“I went into this with my eyes wide open about the challenge, it was never about the short term, it is a long-term project,” he asserted.
“The main goals for Japan are the Asian Games in September and the regional qualifiers for the Olympic Games in November and to develop a longer-term programme – not just one that goes from year-to-year, one that involves coach development, player academies, and agreements with clubs over the release of players.
“I am loving learning about Japan and the opportunity to hopefully do something that can make a lasting impact in a country that hasn’t achieved too well in sevens but has the potential to. I am enjoying what I do and I have learnt that is very important in this crazy world.”