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Japan Win the First Title at GIO 2018 IWRF Wheelchair Rugby World Championship!

GIO 2018 IWRF Wheelchair Rugby World Championship was held in Sydney, Australia from August 5-10, in their dead of winter. It was the Japan national team—with its very own home-country Paralympic Games coming up in two years—that prevailed against six-year wheelchair rugby champion Australia.

A Last-Ditch Comeback, Driven by the Team’s Belief in Each Other

This world championship, held once every four years, is the final world-class tournament before the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. In the final round, the Japan national team (ranked 4th in the world), who had won a bronze medal in the Rio Paralympic Games, went up against Australia (ranked 1st in the world), who had won all their games leading up to the final round. The game, even from the beginning, was full of thrills, with Australia making a comeback against Japan—leading in the third period—in the final period, and Japan making yet another comeback in the last three minutes of the game. Additional points scored in a steal orchestrated by Daisuke Ikezaki, named MVP of this tournament, brought Japan’s score up to 62, for a 62-61 win against Australia—Japan’s first ever victory in the world championships.

MVP Ikezaki (right) and Kishi (left)

This is the first time Japan has been the wheelchair rugby world champion in any major international tournament, including the Paralympic Games and the World Championships. Until now, Japan’s greatest achievement in the Wheelchair Rugby World Championship had been a bronze medal in the 2010 tournament in Vancouver.

Never give up, even if they make a comeback. Yukinobu Ike told us that even the cheering for the local Australian team felt like the audience was cheering for them. In this game, the Japan national team was more resilient and determined than ever before.

The main factor for their victory can be heard in the words of the captain, Ike.
“We thought, we can do it—we can make another comeback. They brought us to the breaking point so many times, but we were able to get through because we believed in each other. We’re world champions now because we really pushed through as a team.”

Captain Ike, whose leadership skills were on display even on the court

Fired Up from Their Difficulties in the Preliminaries

Japan got through the preliminary rounds of this tournament, in which the 12 teams were divided into two groups, in 2nd place. Though they won against Ireland (ranked 19th in the world), a team they had yet to play during the tournament, they struggled through the third round of the preliminaries against Sweden (ranked 6th in the world). “They were very good at the kind of transitions and accurate passes that our team has a hard time defending against,” said Kotaro Kishi. Though Japan’s stiff defense at the end of the game won them the victory, the game was proof that the other teams had gotten a good grasp on how to handle the Japan team. In the final round of the preliminaries, a doubleheader, they suffered a devastating 13-point loss against the Australia team, who had marked Ike as the source of most of the passes on the Japan team. It was a harrowing loss for a team looking to become world champions and buoy themselves up for the Tokyo Paralympic Games.

The Japan team, however, never let go of their challenger spirit, and from here fired themselves up for victory.

“What happens in the court, stays in the court.” So said Kevin Orr, head coach (HC) of the Japan national team, in order to bring the players’ focus to the game against the U.S. in the semi-finals.

No one—from the players who got very little time in the court, to the staff members providing physical/emotional care to the players—said anything negative about the games, in order to put the team in a better head-space for the semi-finals the next day. Shinichi Shimakawa told us that everyone was dedicated to fulfilling their role, and that the team had already become one in the preparation stages of the game.

Communication went very well in the game against the U.S.—a crucial point in the tournament. Ikezaki’s confidence in the team was evident in his words.
“We were really able to fix out positioning for our defensive line, which we weren’t able to do in the Australia game.” Japan’s defense, which prevented a numbers mismatch on the court, held back the U.S. offense and shut down their star player.

Japan won the game 51-46. The players cried tears of joy, and each voiced their desire to go home from the tournament as world champions.

“We just want to talk amongst each other and prepare ourselves for tomorrow,” said Kae Kurahashi. In her words, we could feel how much more united the players were as a team.

And so, after all that, they arrived at the morning of the finals. HC Orr, who had spoken to the team many times about keeping a fighting spirit since the team had been established in April, said that on this day, he held only a quick meeting, and left the rest up to the players themselves. They entered the finals in the best possible head-space.

Group photograph of the Japan wheelchair rugby team with their gold medals ©Asuka Senaga

An “Incomplete” Japan Team, in the Midst of Evolution

With this victory, the Japan team showed off the increased variety of their four-person line-ups (the combination of players with differing levels of impairment on the court)—something they had been working on in their training camps and in the Japan Para Wheelchair Rugby Championship—as well as the increased variety in their offensive attacks.

“There were a few things that could’ve been better, but as I was playing, I was just thinking I wanted to do good for the team.” So said vice captain Masayuki Haga.

Vice captain Haga (right)

Seiya Norimatsu, who helped support the team with his aggressive plays, said confidently, “Being able to win on this enormous of a stage will be a great advantage for us as we work towards the gold medal two years from now.”

“The game today really deepened our ties as a team. From now on we’ll be defending this title, but we’ll work to enhance the accuracy of our plays and try to solidify a ‘Japan-style’ wheelchair rugby.”
So said Ikezaki, the star player of the Japan team.

The journey towards a gold medal in the Tokyo Paralympic Games has only just begun. But this time, their journey will begin at the top of the world.

World Championship: Journey to the Gold Medal

8/5 Japan 57-37 Ireland
8/6 Japan 56-37 New Zealand
8/7 Japan 48-46 Sweden
8/8 Japan 52-42 Denmark
8/8 Japan 52-65 Australia

8/9 Japan 51-46 U.S.

8/10 Japan 62-61 Australia

text by Asuka Senaga
photo by Takao Ochi

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