Konnichi wa from Kitakyushu, Japan! An industrial city in the south of the country, it was developed in 1963 and currently is home to one million people.
It is the gateway for cities on either side, Honshu and Kyushu, as well as an important port for international trade. Why am I here? The city is hosting the inaugural Japanese leg, the fourth in total, of the HSBC Women’s world rugby sevens series this weekend in the 15,000 seater Mikuni World Stadium. The stadium, built right on the waterfront and adjacent to the team hotel, opened its doors officially in February and has been nominated as a training base prior to the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the Olympic games in Tokyo 2020.
Although not a country steeped in rugby folklore, Japan proved the surprise packet at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, managing to topple South Africa in the pool stages. This, along with a thriving domestic league, hosting the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the continued inclusion of Sevens rugby at the next Olympics in Tokyo 2020, all contribute to rugby becoming one of the fastest growing sports in the land of the Rising Sun.
Indeed, their female sevens team, as host nation, occupy the invitational spot at this leg of the world series, and claimed the only qualification spot as a core team a fortnight ago for next year's series in Hong Kong. Joe Schmidt will also bring his Irish squad, minus the Lions, east to Tokyo for two tests as part of their summer tour in June. Japan may not have been your idea of Rugby Central before now, but it sure is set to be.
So what to expect culturally and sociologically from Japan? Our first experience occurred 6,000 miles from Kitakyushu, when a more than facilitating member of JAL, the Japanese airline carrier, collected us from the gate of our Aer Lingus flight from Heathrow and guided us to our connecting Tokyo flight. From there, our interactions have been marked by hushed politeness and helpfulness. General observations around the city show a society, on the surface, that follow the rules, with little police presence visible. For example, in Kitakyushu cars are directed to reverse park, or park in the direction they are facing. I have yet to see one car disobey this rule, and I doubt I will. 'I was only popping into the shop for a minute' with the hazards lights on won't cut it here!
However, the flip side is that anything that sits outside of the norm causes an almost frantic reaction amongst the locals. We encountered this first hand when 13 Irish girls took out foam rollers and attempted to conduct a mobility session in an open space at the gate of our connecting flight from Tokyo airport to our final destination. I’m not sure the airport staff knew what we were doing, but it wasn’t ‘de rigeur’, and we were ushered off the ground as quick as a hiccup and into an aisle out of sight!
How have we been faring so far at the midway point of the world series? A ninth place finish in Dubai, followed by two consecutive eighth-place finishes in Sydney and Las Vegas, have left the team in ninth overall in the HSBC World Series standings. As well as the obvious aim to finish up as high as we can in the series, the order has direct implications for qualifying for next year's Rugby 7s World Cup in San Francisco.
Last year, our inaugural season on the World Series for this current group, we strived and failed to get a top eight finish. This year, we opened the series in Dubai by tieing with our best-placed finish from the previous season, winning the Bowl. What was different from last season was the reaction to this. Now with back-to-back top eight finishes, the squad is building momentum, where reaching a quarter-final is a bare minimum and we are striving to improve our placing at each tournament.
“Momentum” is a term I’ve found rambling around my head this week. In sporting parlance, it is difficult to define and even more difficult again to obtain. How important is ‘momentum’, for instance, in picking the Lions squad? For Warren Gatland, selecting 41 players from four top tier rugby nations is an unenviable task. With such a large professional playing base to choose from, the level of skill, physical capabilities and decision-making at an individual level is more uniform across the board than people might think. What elevates some players above others, reaches that arm a little higher, can often be form, or momentum.
Take Peter O’ Mahony. He tears his ACL during the 2015 RWC final pool game against France. He returns to captain Munster but finds it difficult to break into a dominant back row in an Irish team that has just beaten the All Blacks. His skill and leadership qualities are never in doubt, but while he continues to battle with niggling injuries other players are in possession of the jersey, and his role for much of the Six Nations was that of an impact sub. Fast forward to the final game of the Six Nations when Ireland is aiming to deny all-conquering England a grand slam at the Aviva. Peter O’Mahony is called up to start at short notice due to an injury to Jamie Heaslip, plays a blinder. He follows this up with some fine performances with another team benefitting from being on the ‘momentum’ buzz, Munster, and come this week he’s named as a British and Irish Lion.
Contrast that with the man he replaced on the final day of the Six Nations, Jamie Heaslip. In 2016, Heaslip crossed the whitewash for the try of the year and was shortlisted for World Rugby player of the year. He was surfing the crest of a wave at the Indian summer stage of his career. A few back to back injuries and not only is he not selected for the Lions, his omission didn’t raise too many eyebrows either. If the Lions toured in 2016 what is the betting these players names would be reversed, even though different back row positions? The aim of this isn’t to highlight one player against another in terms of their capabilities, more how form and momentum can play such a significant role for both teams and individuals. This is also why it is futile picking the Lions squad months out from official announcement, as so much can happen in the meantime.
Back to the far east and preparations have gone well since our arrival Tuesday. Our group pits us against familiar foes Fiji, World and Olympic Champions Australia, and Brazil. Momentum is something every team or athlete looks to harness, and our team is no different.
Each improved placing puts us in a better position in terms of seeding for the next tournament, as well as breeding confidence throughout the squad. As we embark on this leg of the World Series far away from Lions announcements and Champions Cup semis, we look to build further on what we have achieved so far this season and try to get to a hitherto elusive Cup semi final (ie a top 4 finish).
All in a part of the world we hope will become a happy hunting ground for Irish rugby teams in the not so distant future.
IRELAND 7S SQUAD: Ashleigh Baxter (Cooke/Ulster), Claire Keohane (UL Bohs/Munster), Stacey Flood (Railway Union/Leinster), Lucy Mulhall (Rathdrum/Leinster), Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe (Railway Union/Munster), Sene Naoupu (Aylesford Bulls), Audrey O'Flynn (Ireland Sevens Programme), Hannah Tyrrell (Old Belvedere/Leinster), Megan Williams (Ireland Sevens Programme), Kim Flood (Railway Union/Leinster), Louise Galvin (UL Bohs/Munster), Emma Murphy (Railway Union/Leinster)