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The building and blossoming of The Sakura Fifteen

By Claire Thomas
Japan celebrate scoring a try against the USA at Rugby World Cup 2021.

Sometimes – and perhaps more often than we could have dared dream – when Japanese teams dive into the pool of a World Cup, a sort of alchemy occurs. They become Goliath-slaying Davids; small dogs with the very biggest of fights in them; and plucky proof that the commentators weren’t wrong – the game really isn’t played on paper.


The men’s team downed the Boks in 2015, thwarted a pair of Celtic titans before enrapt home support in 2019, and are increasingly proving more sumo than featherweight on the world stage.

And so it’s understandable that we’re now looking to their female counterparts, who are just beginning to – well – blossom at Test level, to write their own legend.

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Cue the world number twelves: the Sakura Fifteen.

They’re up against it, as this is written – they’ve 80 minutes in Auckland this Sunday, against an in-form Italian outfit, to salvage their World Cup – but they’re both delightful to watch and teeming with potential, so it felt important to step back and appreciate the side’s journey to this point.

The seed of the game in Japan had to germinate in the face of significant cultural opposition: it wasn’t deemed an appropriate sport for women, and so not only received no support – but faced significant prejudice. In the face of social convention, Liberty Fields RFC was formed in the 1980s – many of whom went on to compete in the inaugural World Cup. They had no coach or doctor, and balanced training with jobs and domestic duties – but travelled across the globe to pit themselves against the best in the game. Indomitable pioneers. The first swell of a Sakura wave.

In 1994, Japan won their first pool stage match – defeating Sweden 10 points to 5 in Melrose – but this proved a false dawn: they would finish 13th in 2002, miss the next three editions, and then find themselves in 2017’s wooden spoon play-off. The Blossoms beat Hong Kong, avoiding that unenviable kitchenware, but still departed Ireland a long way off the pace.


At regional level, though, they were dominant: the three Asia Championships before Covid were won by Japan, and the Asia Sevens Series trophies have not left their shores since 2015. When they appointed Canadian Lesley McKenzie as their fifteens Head Coach in 2018 – the aim was to take that success global.

25-time international McKenzie plied her trade at hooker at both the 2006 and 2010 World Cups for Canada, and was working as a rugby development officer in New Zealand when she received an invitation to get involved with the Japanese women’s sevens programme. She thought the email had ended up in her inbox by mistake, but was soon at the 2018 Sevens World Cup as an assistant coach, and received the keys to their fifteens set-up the following January.

First up? The very basics. She had to develop a culture where players were willing to challenge both their coaches and one another (no mean feat in a country where respect is a core social and societal value), and a significantly more aggressive playing style – where contact was king, and the ferocity cranked up several notches. The climate proved much too hot for a Canadian at times, and the language barrier sizeable – McKenzie admits that she still regularly calls her manager for translation help – but her coaching philosophy came with her, and its values began to emanate from her squad: honesty, bravery, and joy.

She named Saki Minami to be her captain – the side’s passionate but level-headed loosehead – and set to work. The team toured Australia in July, losing both matches by hefty margins – before displaying marked improvement in their Autumn trip to the Northern Hemisphere. A draw against Italy in L’Aquila, and four-point victory over the Scots in Glasgow, were a sign of things to come: the wave was beginning to build.


And then? A global pandemic: an existence-altering event which saw the team’s progress extinguished. They would not play again for two full years. Covid was so disruptive that World Rugby eventually gave up rescheduling the Asian Qualification tournament and handed Japan a spot in the 2021 World Cup – as the region’s highest-ranked side. Not how they would have wanted to secure their berth, but they’d not lost to an Asian opponent since 2014 – so the decision feels more than fair.

Unsurprisingly, their 2021 European tour was a rusty affair – with losses against Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. The squad returned bagelled and ‘furious’ – but each margin of defeat was smaller than the last, and they’d come to an invaluable realisation. The good habits they’d believed were deeply ingrained had unravelled under pressure: those brighter pre-Coronavirus moments had to become constants.

Back into training they went. A few competed in the Allianz Premier 15s – Sachiko Kato and Kanako Kobayashi sparkled for a history-making Exeter Chiefs – and some, like Makoto Lavemai and Mana Furuta, found themselves starring in this year’s Super W. The rest? Japan has an unusual system: the fifteens players aren’t centrally contracted, but many of the sides within their domestic championship are linked to large corporations. The players are employed by these, and are – in turn – given time off to train with the national set-up. There are no known plans to change this, and – if their tour this spring was anything to go by – it’s an effective way of doing things.

The Sakura wave rolled Down Under to great effect. They nullified Fijiana’s flair on the Gold Coast, survived a ‘slugfest’ against an Australian Barbarians outfit in Brisbane, and then – despite a Covid outbreak amongst the squad – took a golden scalp in downing the Wallaroos 10-12. It was their first ever win over a top-five nation, and showcased the sizeable improvements they’d made under McKenzie and her canny coaching appointments.

Having represented Scotland at two World Cups, Louise Dalgliesh injected unprecedented guile and skill into the squad’s handling. Former Wallabies captain, Ben Mowen, enhanced their set piece. 52-cap Australian Berrick Barnes imparted his play-making knowledge to the squad – whilst wowing them with the Japanese he’d picked up during a stint with the Saitama Wildknights. And, all the way from the world of AFL, Jared Crouch of the Sydney Swans spent days transforming their ability to simply ‘catch and kick’. It was arguably their territorial manipulation, and variety from the boot, which earned them that historic win over the Wallaroos. A beaming Minami said after the match: ‘we have our base. Now we want to build it higher.’ Look out, world.

Seeking further international experience, the Sakura Fifteen invited South Africa and Ireland to Japan for a pair of summer series. There were moments of real scrappiness and poor discipline, but also some of their most complete play to date – especially when defeating Ireland 29-10 in Tokyo to round off the Test window. It was their first ever win over the women in green, and also coincided with a truly magical off-field moment. Almost forty years after Liberty RFC decided that togetherness and pride could triumph in the face of ridicule and prejudice – 126 former Sakura Fifteen players were recognised for their achievements in a joyous cap presentation.

The improvement was undeniable, but their final warm-up match – at Eden Park against the Black Ferns – was only ever going to end one way. 95-12 is the sort of score line you hear described as ‘cricket’, and the result of pitting a team yet to reach the quarter-finals of a World Cup against five-time Champions. There was heart in abundance, though: they earned plenty of fans for their ambitious offloading game, their tireless pursuit of their two tries, and the depths of their playmakers’ boxes of tricks. As McKenzie observed, it was a nod to Japan’s progress that they’d received the invitation to Kiwi rugby’s spiritual home in the first place. Another comment of hers which sticks in the mind is that she was asked, upon taking the job, if she wanted to model her team on the Black Ferns. ‘On the contrary’, she replied, ‘I now think that people will aspire to play like Japan.’

The results on the sport’s biggest stage haven’t yet materialised. They were steamrollered by Canada in their opening fixture, and came face-to-face with the USA right as the Eagles’ attack finally clicked last weekend. They’re yet to register a point on the table, but have a booking at Last Chance Saloon on Sunday. Things are numerically out of their hands, but a win over Italy would put them in the running for a quarter final spot – the first in their history – and be a momentous occasion.

Unfortunately for fans of Japan, the Azzurri are flying right now: full of hustle and muscle, and with a swashbuckling Beatrice Rigoni guiding them around the park whilst chucking back strawberry sweets. There’s a huge gap in experience between the sides – against the USA, the average Japanese player was a 15-cap 23-year-old. The average Italian? 28, with 46 appearances in that famous blue jersey. For all the power of Seina Saito, the pace of Komachi Imakugi, and the pizzazz of ‘wee legend’ (as anointed by Dalgliesh) Megumi Abe – their opposition have the cohesion which comes with being a professional outfit, who’ve played 19 more Tests since the last World Cup – and aren’t operating under such ‘do or die’ pressure.

How much does the win matter, though? This is international rugby – of *course* it’s about results – but it’s also arguable that this has been Japan’s finest ever season. They’ve beaten Fiji, Australia, Ireland, and South Africa in 2022 – and looked confident and capable in this tournament. We’d love it if they could ‘do a Japan’ and tear up the form book in a pool stage encounter for the ages. Of course we would – it would be the cherry blossom on top of the cake of these opening weekends – but let’s not be hasty. The progress is undeniable, their appetite for success evident, and the results on the horizon: slowly but surely, there is a Sakura Wave building.


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