Victory in the Japan Championship! – The Japan Team and the Journey to a Homeland Gold Medal
The Japan Para Wheelchair Rugby Championship is held every year at the end of May. This year marks the 5th installment of this championship, which was established as a way for members of the Japan wheelchair rugby team to gain competitive experience in the sport.
Kevin Orr, brought in to coach the Japan team as a “gold medal getter” after the Rio Paralympics, is pouring his energies into coaching.
“To win the gold medal, it’s very important that we do everything we have to do, one step at a time. What I’m looking for in this championship is for each athlete to play perfectly.”
American Kevin Orr coaching the Japan team
The Japan team earned a bronze medal at the Rio Paralympics in 2016. Their goal, however, is to win a gold medal at home—at the Tokyo Paralympics, to be held in two years. For this year’s championship, they invited the U.K. (ranked 5th in the world), Sweden (6th), and France (7th), for some competition in advance of the Wheelchair Rugby World Championship to be held in August. The Japan team worked to improve their teamwork at the line level (four-player formation on the court), and strengthen their new team strategies.
Sweden, like Japan, placed more of an emphasis on strengthening their new strategies in advance of the Canada Cup in June. The U.K. and France teams, on the other hand, had no plans to compete in the Canada Cup, considering the Japan Cup the sort of prelude to the Wheelchair Rugby World Championship in August. Their matches in the double-round robin games (a style of championship where each team plays against all others twice) and finals were intense and action-packed.
A gold medal team cannot afford to be easy on themselves
With two victories, Japan enjoyed a favorable start on the first day of the four-day tournament. There were still teamwork issues, however. “There were some fairly obvious passing mistakes and an overall lack of communication,” said Seiya Norimatsu (1.5), a member of the team that won the bronze medal at the Rio Paralympics.
Captain Yukinobu Ike (3.0), who had sat out due to health issues from before the championship and had watched the games from the sidelines, also expressed his concern.
“For Japan to get a gold medal, we have to win against the U.S. and Australia. But sitting here at this bench, it was clear why we haven’t been able to beat those teams.”
The tiniest hint of inattention, the slightest lack of communication, could end it all. A team aiming to be the best in the world must remain tense and aware at all times, looking around to make sure the ball is not stolen, however in the lead the team may be. Even players that are not in possession of the ball must constantly be analyzing the situation around them—there’s no time to rest. The Japan team, says Ike, just doesn’t have that “little something” they need to win.
“What’s necessary first and foremost is that everyone realize the importance of this ‘little something,’ and that they’re all prepared to deal with anything that happens on the court. And they have to do this enough that it becomes normal for them. Building these sort of base skills will really help us keep our position as a top-class team.” So says the captain, with a sense of strength and determination.
Star Japanese player Ikezaki, known for his speed
Star player Daisuke Ikezaki (3.0), while trying out a variety of lines with the rest of his team, was feeling a certain sense of evolution. Ikezaki until now was known mainly for speeding around the court and scoring on his own. The newfound variety in their plays, however, had improved the accuracy of his passes. His perfectly timed passes to Shinichi Shimakawa (3.0), who he played with in the U.S. last season, and Norimatsu, whose plays he has now grown accustomed to, drew loud cheers from the crowd.
Ikezaki, however, is always looking towards further improvement. “There were certain times where we made eye contact and had good communication. But this has to be something we can sustain, and we ultimately want to be more relaxed and instinctive with our passes to each other.”
After the Rio Paralympics, he said, more and more of their opponents have taken to marking the 3.0 players (players with relatively light disabilities) on the Japan team. Their plan, however, is to bounce back from this pressure with a new and intricate front of teamwork.
Competition and a variety of lines as the key to victory
“More Japanese wheelchair rugby players in general has led to a stronger Japan team.”
So says the coaches and captains of teams throughout the world. Indeed, the level of skill and diversity in Japan’s wheelchair rugby world has become obvious to the rest of the world.
“It’s been a while since we last played as the Japan team, and it was pretty nerve-wracking,” said Nagayasu. His strengths are his height and his passes.
Head coach Kevin Orr implemented for the first time in this championship a mid-line* composed of Yu Nagayasu (2.5), Kazuhiko Kanno (2.0), Masayuki Haga (2.0), and Shota Watanabe (1.5). Though this new strategy is as yet unpolished, it is one that the team is hopeful about, as it affords some rest to the 3.0 players during the game.
*: A line comprised mainly of mid pointers instead of one that utilizes Japan’s very talented high pointers
Nagayasu, who was a member of the Japan team for the Beijing Paralympics and has returned to the team after four years, said this. “In the mid-line, I’m the best at passing the ball around and keeping the game calm. Shota [Watanabe] is great at carrying the ball around, and he was able to do that well this time around. Now we just have to work on our communication, spacing, the timing of our passes, and be the sort of the line that the team can be proud of.” He went on to express the sense of responsibility he feels as a member of the Japan team. “We got a lot of quality time to strengthen some new strategies, but I do feel responsible for our (only) loss to the U.K.”
Rising star Watanabe (right) feels first-hand the speed of the foreign players
Watanabe, the youngest member of the Japan team at 26 years old, discussed what he had learned from competing in the match against Sweden. “I felt like I was finally maybe on the same playing field as these foreign players, who I’d always felt were just impossibly fast.” He went on to speak about what he feels he has to do to improve. “I need to have more confidence in my own speed and performance, and go out of my way to be more active and communicate as I play.”
Japan sailed through the preliminaries with five wins and one loss, while working to strengthen a number of lines. The team then went on to beat the U.K. 53-46 in the finals to win the championship.
Starting members of the final game (left to right: Wakayama, Ike, Ikezaki, Imai)
Of the many lines in the Japan team, the one that was selected for the starting members of the final game was comprised of Ikezaki (3.0), Ike (3.0), Hidefumi Wakayama (1.0), and Tomoaki Imai (1.0). Before the Rio Paralympics, they had always been the first line of the Japan team. Though they had, since then, lost their position at the head of the pack, their exquisite teamwork the day before the final game had earned them the long-coveted right to be the starting members for the team.
Says Orr, “This whole championship we’ve been focused on strengthening our strategies as a team. But for the final game our focus was on winning, and so we set up the lines so they’d be as strong as possible.” The captain, Ike, expressed his joy at how the championship had turned out. “There’s healthy competition now within the team, and the lines all work better together, trust each other more.”
That being said, no one on the team was satisfied with their 7-point victory over the U.K. “I personally am really upset about the two passing mistakes I made in the final game. We all just want to make sure we play 100% all the time, so we don’t make these kinds of mistakes.” So said star player Ikezaki.
One point, or just even one mistake could be what prevents them from winning the gold medal at the Paralympics. It’s hard to take our eyes off of this Japan team, fighting their way down the two-year path to their ultimate goal—the gold medal.
The stadium will hopefully be packed for their gold medal victory two years from now
*: In the parentheses are the point categorizations of each of the players according to their level and/or scope of impairment
text by Asuka Senaga
photo by X-1