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World Wheelchair Rugby Challenge: Battle for the Title, as Witnessed by a Record # of Spectators

While the Rugby World Cup raged on, there was another world championship being held at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium—the World Wheelchair Rugby Challenge (WWRC Tokyo 2019), from October 16-20.

Eight powerhouse wheelchair rugby teams gathered for the tournament, which was held in the same five-day format as the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. Because the results of the tournament would also be reflected in the IWRF (International Wheelchair Rugby Federation) world rankings, many of the teams participating considered the tournament to be their most major battleground for the year. Teams included those that had already qualified for Tokyo 2020—Japan (host country slot), Australia (highest-ranked in the Wheelchair Rugby World Championship, excluding host country Japan), the U.S. (pan-America slot), the U.K. (Europe slot), and New Zealand (Asia-Oceania slot). This was a high-intensity, high-tension tournament, with most teams going in envisioning their battles next year in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.

The venue, the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, was filled with the explosive cheers of children

Touchstone Leading Into a Gold Medal Win at the Tokyo Paralympic Games

Japan was the champion of last year’s Wheelchair Rugby World Championships. Their goal, of course, was another championship title. Female player Kae Kurahashi (0.5), who had played well for Japan at the World Championships, was unable to compete due to conditioning adjustments. Japan, however, found itself in the A pool in the two-pool preliminaries, away from Australia and the U.S. (ranked 3rd in the world), and was able to go into the semi-finals with its central players well-rested. Around the semi-finals, matches become incredibly tense—with a single play capable of determining victory or loss. Lacking the line-up that included Kurahashi (3.0-3.0-2.0-0.5F), the focus for the Japan team was on overcoming these incredibly close matches with the other line-ups at their disposal.

“There’s all this pressure to do well on our home field, and we also have to show the audience that we’ve grown and gotten better since the World Championships. I think this will be a trying tournament for us as we head towards Tokyo 2020.”

So said star Daisuke Ikezaki (3.0) before the tournament. When it was over, the players had each managed to show off their growth, but had also come face-to-face with the rigor and harshness of competition.

Star Ikezaki, having his movement blocked by two Australia players

The High-Low Line-up Returns Even Stronger, for an All-Win Preliminary

Having sailed through the preliminaries in their matches against Brazil and France, the Japan team faced its first struggle in their match against the U.K. The U.K. team, ranked 4th in the world, boasts an abundant roster of players, and has, according to Head Coach Paul Shaw, focused their strategy on beating the “big teams,” booking matches only against the world’s top three. Against such a tough opponent, the Japan team—with starting line-up Ike, Shimakawa, Seiya Norimatsu, and Hasegawa (3.0-3.0-1.5-0.5)—found itself in a difficult match. That is, until Japan’s “high-low line-up,” with Ike, Ikezaki, Imai, and Wakayama (3.0-3.0-1.0-1.0), managed to flourish in the third period, their quick defense-offense turnovers creating space between Hidefumi Wakayama and Tomoaki Imai, and allowing for combo plays between Ike and Ikezaki—a strategy very true to the Japan team.

Head Coach Orr made creative adjustments geared for next year, such as using cards to give instructions, because instructions from the court and bench can’t be heard over the cheers

Said the two low-pointers*, “As a low-pointer, my job is to get the marks off of the high-pointers, and give space for them to move. I was able to go back deep in the court where I’m supposed to be, and fulfill my duty,” said Wakayama.

“I was able to fill up all the spaces so that the U.K. team—who are good at passes—wouldn’t be able to run into the spaces,” said Imai.

This “high-low line-up” was integral to the Japan national team winning their bronze medal in the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. Since Rio, these two have had to give up their starting members to other line-ups. They sounded now, however, full of satisfaction.

*Low-pointer: Players with heavier impairment, who have less “points” in their class

Low-pointer Wakayama, going in to suppress the U.K.’s point-getter

Younger Players Make Themselves Known

Another factor exhibited in this tournament was the growth of the younger players on the team. Particularly prominent was 0.5-pointer Yuki Hasegawa, who initially became a part of the Japan national team as the substitute for the team’s oldest member, Kotaro Kishi. His strength is in his speed, and he had managed to show off this strength in the matches at the beginning of the tournament, and been chosen for the starting line-up for the first match against Australia. He had told us that when he competed for the first time as a starting member at the IWRF 2019 Asia-Oceania Championship in September, his whole body had been shaking with nerves. Nowadays, however, he seemed to have gotten used to the world stage, making good use of his skills as he covered a powerful 3.5-point player all on his own, creating a point imbalance on the court.

27-year old up-and-comer Hasegawa making his case for the Japan national team

Even with this performance, however, he seemed a tad bit dissatisfied, telling us, “If I’d been able to stop them better, I could make it easier on the others even after the transition. Next time I want to be more firm about it—stay right up against them the whole time.”

His fighting spirit rages quietly on, for the high-pointers battling it out on the front lines, and for all his teammates waiting on the bench.

The world’s powerhouse players struggled with Seiya Norimatsu’s defense

In the semi-finals match against Australia, speedy Seiya Norimatsu (1.5) was able to read the movements of their star player Ryley Batt (3.5), tackling him and chipping away at his energy. Also present was Japan’s strong drive towards victory, as seen in last year’s World Championships and again in this tournament—quickly regaining control of the ball even after suffering through an intense defense and turnover. They were unable, however, to succeed in their “key attack” (a strategy in which four players work to score points away from opposing players guarding mainly the area near the try line), which was something that they had been working on. “We just didn’t have the courage to make that attack,” said Seiya Norimatsu, looking frustrated. They lost the match with a one-point difference. “It’s my responsibility that we weren’t able to improve our offensive effectiveness,” said Head Coach Kevin Orr, disappointed.

They did, however, beat the U.K. team 54-49 in the third place playoffs the next day, ending the tournament in third place. Captain Yukinobu Ike (3.0) voiced his complicated feelings as to their performance, saying, “We can’t forget what this feels like—what it feels like not to win gold,” but did go on to say that their victory and sense of unity in the final match wouldn’t have been possible without the dedication of the players that hadn’t been able to play in the match, and the invigorating encouragement from the staff.

Captain Ike, always the central figure in the team and on the court

As the Japan players watched court-side, the U.S. beat Australia 59-51 in the finals, and earned the championship title.

This tournament saw a record number of spectators, with 35,700 people coming to watch the matches over the course of its five days, and coming into contact with the intensity and depth of the sport that is wheelchair rugby. On the weekend, tickets for even the paid seats sold out completely, and on Friday night, the food trucks sold out of beer—marking the dawn of a new era, perhaps of parasport being enjoyed simply as sport.

*Numbers in parentheses refer to the points assigned to each player, according to their type and level of impairment.

text by Asuka Senaga
photo by X-1

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