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【WheelchairRugby】Japan Para Wheelchair Rugby Championship:Japan Gives World’s Top Teams a Close Run

The Japan Para Wheelchair Rugby Championship, between Rio Paralympic gold medalists Australia, silver medalists the USA, and bronze medalists Japan, was held from May 25-28 at Chiba Port Arena in Chiba, Japan.

Having made a fresh start following the Rio Games, the Japanese team went into the championships with American Kevin Orr as their new head coach. At the press conference marking his start as coach in February, Orr told reporters that his greatest goal for the team is gold at the Tokyo Paralympics. The new coach went on to say that “particularly in top-level games, it is important to eliminate even the smallest of mistakes,” reflecting the energy he is investing in developing a team that can fight their way to victory even against tough opponents.

Easy victory against Rio gold medalists Australia

Masayuki Haga, a player who has gone from reserve to key member

Placing second in the preliminary rounds (three wins, three losses), Japan started the final day of the tournament on May 28 with the third-place playoffs, facing Australia, who had finished third in the preliminaries. With Australia missing its super ace Ryley Batt (3.5)—who has led Australia to two consecutive victories at the Paralympics—the Japanese team, including ace Daisuke Ikezaki (3.0), and powerful player Seiya Norimatsu (1.5), really put their opponents under pressure, not allowing them any opening. Not letting Australia take the lead even once, Japan won 69 to 55, securing their place in the final.

But when asked excitedly by the press after the match about the “resounding victory,” Japan’s ace Ikezaki calmly replied:
“We were able to set own pace for the game by making space and other such tactics, but we also made a lot of slip ups. We need to make the next game completely mistake free.” Not satisfied with a comfortable victory against one of the world’s strongest teams, Ikezaki continued to follow his typical perfectionism as he looked ahead to the final.

Closing the distance with the USA

In the final around one and a half hours later, Japan faced the USA, a team they had failed to beat even once in the preliminary rounds. In the first period, Japan was behind at 11 to 13, but in the second, experienced player Shinichi Shimakawa (3.0) and captain Yukinobu Ike (3.0) secured a succession of points to draw even again, and with a flurry of substitutions in the second half, Japan persistently chased down the match leaders the USA. However, with just 21 seconds to go, Japan conceded a two-point difference when they made a foul in the key area in front of the goal and a turnover was awarded against them. After that, while Japan used a time-out and made a strategic play to attack the USA’s goal in an attempt to make up the difference, a long pass from Ike a mere 0.6 seconds before time was just too late to reach Masayuki Haga (2.0) and Ikezaki in front of the goal. With the score at 51 to 52, Japan lost by just one point.

Japan had used quick transition and working together to repeatedly fight off the US defense as they rapidly broke down Japan’s advantages one after the other, but they had not been able to secure the win.
Wiping the sweat from his brow, Ike spoke of his regret at his own mistakes: “If we had taken a proper time-out once there were less than five minutes to go, we may have been able to take it to extra time. It is such split-second decisions that led to this result.”

Including the defeats in the preliminaries, the Japanese team lost four matches in the championships. But it was able to put the pressure on the US team—who had previously enjoyed a ten-point lead—with just a one point difference. On court just after the match ended, a disappointed Haga still showed his optimism for future matches, saying, “this experience will help us in the next game.”
The players also agreed that they could sense the improvement in the team.

Head coach Kevin Orr gives instructions from the bench

Yukinobu Ike, who has stayed on as captain after the Rio Games

Becoming a team capable of taking home victory in the finals

Ikezaki—whose motivation to beat Australia and the USA
drives him to regularly surround himself with strong players from other nations by participating in club team games in Canada and other countries—promised that the team would work even harder to improve, using the experience to ensure “greater individual skills, better physical fitness, and more teamwork.”

一Even as he spoke of their close defeat by just one point, he demonstrated his resolve by saying: “it shows we still have a poor endgame. What would we do if that had been a major contest, where silver or gold were at stake.”

Chuck Aoki, the linchpin of the US defense and offense, noted “The Japanese team is really good now—I don’t feel a big difference in our teams’ strengths.” And the Japanese team also pushed the US to just a one point difference in the preliminaries at the Rio Paralympics last year.

As they prepare for the Tokyo Paralympics in 2020, the Japanese team will start by working on ensuring that they can make up that one point difference.

This contest was a chance for players to address concrete issues, such as how to exert their real ability amid the pressure of playing at home, and how to make accurate passes when under great pressure, and it has really helped them to gain the experience they needed. The experience and disappointment they take with them was truly the kind they could only gain from taking on such opponents, and they look set to use it to carry on their progress.

The Japanese team after taking second place in the championship

*Numbers in parentheses are players’ allotted points according to disability type and level.

text by Asuka Senaga
photo by X-1
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