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【Wheelchair Rugby】Japan Para Championships from May 25-Sights Set on Winning Gold Medal in 2020

The Japan wheelchair rugby national team, which won a long-sought bronze medal at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, will be competing in the Japan Para Championships taking place between May 25 and 28 at Chiba Port Arena. The Japan Para Wheelchair Rugby Championship began in FY2014. The objective of the tournament is to give the Japan national team an opportunity to boost its strength by playing against hard-impact teams from abroad. It offers a valuable opportunity to play actual games without their outcome affecting a team’s global rankings. For Japan, it is also a chance for younger players and up-and-coming lines (i.e., the four-player-combination playing at any one time on a court) to grow.

With winning a gold in three years’ time at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics as the major goal, the Japan national wheelchair rugby team—which is rebuilding its foundation—will be aiming for its third championship title.

The Three Strongest Teams of the World to Gather

Australia and U.S.A., which fought the final game for the gold in Rio, will be coming to Japan in this year’s tournament. The winners of the gold medal (Australia), silver medal (U.S.A.) and bronze (Japan) at the Rio Paralympics, or the top 3 teams from around the world, will therefore be gathering in Chiba. In the preliminaries, the three teams will be playing three games against each other for a total of six games per team. In the final, the team that is in first place after the preliminaries will play against the winner of the third-place match taking place on the last day. All eyes will then be on the final game that will tip-off at 1:00 p.m. on Sunday, May 28. (Admission to the games is free.)

Beginning this year, Kevin Orr will be serving as the head coach of the Japan wheelchair rugby team, which has its eyes set on winning a gold medal at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics taking place on home turf. Mr. Orr, an American, was the head coach of the Canadian wheelchair rugby team in Rio. Having already experienced two Paralympic Games as head coach, Mr. Orr is fired up about Japan playing a high-level game at the upcoming Japan Para Championships.

Kevin Orr expressed his determination at the February press conference announcing his appointment as Japan wheelchair rugby head coach
photo by Asuka Senaga

Fourteen players are on the Japan national team roster. It includes Tomoaki Imai (1.0 points; Rize), who hails from the tournament site Chiba Prefecture, and nine other players. All ten played in the Rio Paralympics. The other four selected for the team are Shota Watanabe (1.5 points; Freedom), who played on the Japan national team at the Incheon 2014 Asian Para-Games and is blessed with long arms; Motoki Sugano (2.0 points; Blitz), who is known for his powerful tackles; Koichi Tanabe (0.5 points; Blitz), who was Japan Wheelchair Rugby Federation (JWRF)-certified between 2006 and 2008; and Kae Kurahashi (0.5 points; Blitz), who has been playing for three years and became JWRF-certified for the first time this year.

One of the new head coach’s missions is to unearth new players. Head Coach Orr has said in the past that Japan has many lines that can play at the world level. He has expectations for the rise of players who will become new assets that will maximize the performance of current team members.

The Presence of a Female Player May Determine the Fate of the Japan Team

Wheelchair rugby is a mixed-gender sport, and a female player will be on the Japan team for the first time at the upcoming championship.

Wheelchair rugby is played with four team members on the court at any one time. Players are assigned a sport classification point based on the type or level of their disability, and the sum of the classification points of the four players on the court at the same time must always be eight points or less. However, if women are on the court, that line is permitted an extra 0.5 points per female player. (If there is a woman on a line, for example, the maximum total classification point becomes 8.5 points.)

At his February press conference announcing appointment as Japan wheelchair rugby head coach, Kevin Orr mentioned Kae Kurahashi as a young player who he feels has great potential. She will be the only female athlete to be playing in the upcoming championship. The impact of her being chosen for the Japan national team will be significant in relation to boosting the team’s strengths going forward.
Ms. Kurahashi’s sport classification point value is low. By having her on the court, the team will now be able to use players with high sport classification point values in combination—something that has not been possible in the past. Her presence will allow the team to increase the variation of its lines.
What is more, Ms. Kurahashi always has a big smile on her face even during rigorous practice sessions, such as at camp training. Her cheerful personality will be certain to help the team move forward if it should hit any obstacles in the future.

Yukinobu Ike (on left), captain of the Japan national wheelchair rugby team, in Rio with Head Coach Orr
photo by Asuka Senaga

It is not just young players who are boosting the team’s morale under Head Coach Orr. He manages his team passionately during camp training and other sessions, giving advice to players in a voice louder than anyone else. Veteran players are also rousing themselves. Yukinobu Ike (3.0) points said, “Even experienced players are proactively learning the basics.” Kevin Orr added, “I can sense that they are trying to share their experience with younger players.” The mood of the whole team is that of inspiring each other and raising their individual levels of competition. We cannot but hold great expectations that the Japan national wheelchair rugby team will become even stronger as they fix their sights on Tokyo 2020.

With the Support of Loud Cheering from Spectators

By winning a medal at the Rio Paralympics, wheelchair rugby caught greater attention in Japan than ever before. However, there are not many fans who have actually seen the sport live. The Japan Para Championships are a rare, valuable international tournament that takes place in Japan. It will be a perfect opportunity to appeal the real thrill of wheelchair rugby to many people.

Team members visited junior high schools near the venue and held hands-on wheelchair rugby experience sessions and lectures. About 1,500 students from these schools are scheduled to come see the championships. They are sure to become captivated by the exciting high-contact sport as wheelchairs knock into each other.

Things to keep an eye out for at the championships include the performance of tough overseas wheelchair rugby players. Another is Japanese speed-star Daisuke Ikezaki (3.0 points; Hokkaido BigDippers), who shows no signs of slowing down at age 39, and his plays against the world’s leading wheelchair rugby players.

Japan is off to a good start having recently won the title at the Tri Nations Wheelchair Rugby Invitational, which took place in the United States between U.S.A., Canada and Japan. As they build on the momentum, the wheelchair rugby Japan national team will work to be victorious over their strong opponents, clinch the title at the Japan Para Wheelchair Rugby Championship and become a strong candidate for the gold medal at the Tokyo Paralympic Games.

*The numerals in parentheses represent a player’s sport classification point according to the type or severity of his or her impairment.

text by Asuka Senaga
photo by X-1
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