IWABUCHI Kensuke: Winning a medal means making good decisions

Head coach IWABUCHI Kensuke is confident that the men's rugby sevens team can win a medal at their home Olympics
Head coach IWABUCHI Kensuke is confident that the men's rugby sevens team can win a medal at their home Olympics

Head coach of Japan’s national men’s rugby sevens team hopes to build on Rugby World Cup success to win a medal at the Tokyo 2020 Games

The Japan's men’s rugby union team made its way to the knockout stages of the 2019 Rugby World Cup held in Japan, which boosted the public’s interest in the sport. At the Olympic Games Rio 2016, where the rugby sevens was included in the Olympics for the first time, Japan's men's team finished fourth. Riding high on the success, they are now aiming for a medal at the Tokyo 2020 Games.

Tokyo 2020 spoke to head coach IWABUCHI Kensuke about Japan's sevens squad, what strategy they are adopting to strengthen the team and how the Japanese rugby community are building on from the World Cup success for Tokyo 2020.

Training camps resumed with practice matches

Now that training camps have resumed after suspension due to the COVID-19 pandemic, how are the team doing?

We’ve been training together since around June, at first in small groups by area. Now, we play practice matches as part of our training. At the Olympic Games, two matches will be played in one day over three consecutive days. To enable us to fight through to the end, we need a lot more training.

At training camps and during practice matches, what measures do you take to prevent infection?

We all take a PCR test before each training camp, stay in single rooms, and dine with acrylic partitions installed between us. Usually in rugby, players stand in a circle, but we’ve basically stopped doing that. Coaches try to give directions by keeping a distance from the players. At first, the players may have felt frustrated at not being able to, for example, dine in a lively atmosphere and interact [with each other], but now they are positive about being able to come to training camps, so both the players and staff are coping well.

Japanese rugby sevens team finished fourth at Rio 2016. The photo shows SAKAI Katsuyuki scoring a try against Great Britain.
Japanese rugby sevens team finished fourth at Rio 2016. The photo shows SAKAI Katsuyuki scoring a try against Great Britain.
2016 Getty Images

Getting fully prepared with multiple plans

The Tokyo 2020 Games is approaching. What steps will you take to strengthen the team?

Given the present situation, it is difficult for us to gauge the team’s ability through matches and joint training with teams overseas. With team sports, we need opponents to measure our own level. So, we have made plans for some road trips in coordination with teams abroad and World Rugby, and have informed the players of the schedule. An international event will be hosted by the World Rugby in April 2021, but we are hoping to create other opportunities before March by discussing with other Olympic Rugby teams so that we can get fully prepared.

What other plans do you have in mind?

As there are travel restrictions, it is easier to make team reinforcement plans which can be executed within Japan. In rugby test matches, the eligibility rules differ between the Olympic Games and rugby union. In the latter, players do not have to be a national of the country of the team they represent. We have asked many non-Japanese players to support us by joining the Japanese squad of fifteens. This scheme is helping us now more than ever. There are many players and staff members who are willing to support Japanese rugby, even though they cannot represent Japan at the Olympic Games.

MATSUI Chihito, captain of Japan’s rugby sevens team
MATSUI Chihito, captain of Japan’s rugby sevens team
(C) JRFU

With a sense of mission and pride as national team players

What expectations do you have for the players amid this situation?

At the World Cup in 2019, the players watched the matches at the Tokyo Stadium where [Tokyo 2020] matches will be held, as well as outside the stadium [watching as spectators]. They were content to see so many people watching rugby and getting excited. However, we cannot stress enough the importance of the future of rugby and sports after the Olympic Games. To win a medal at the Games is our big goal, but [in addition] I hope to see the players play with a sense of mission as a national team member and move forward with pride, eyeing beyond the Games. If the players can stay committed, it will certainly benefit the rugby community.

Let us ask you about specific players. Experienced players like SOEJIMA Kameli Raravou Latianara and SAKAI Katsuyuki, who also played at the Rio 2016 Games, will be essential members of the team, won’t they?

Japan placed fourth at Rio 2016. This was the best result in history for Japanese rugby at an international event. At the same time, everyone knows too well the significant difference between finishing third and fourth. It’s a great advantage to have players who are aware of both the good side of winning as well as how much more they have to work to achieve more. As an instructor, I’m grateful to have experienced players leading the team, including Sakai and Soejima, and also MATSUI (Chihito) and FUJITA (Yoshikazu), who went to Rio [as backup members] but couldn’t play.

Matsui is the captain of the team now. How do you view him as team captain?

There are often cases where it works better when the captain or players say what could have been said by a coach. Matsui takes leadership on the field and during difficult phases of a match to get the team together, so not only the staff members, but also the players have high expectations for him, even higher than at Rio 2016.

TSUOKA Shotaro, still new to rugby sevens, has joined in the training camps. There are quite a few younger members too, aren’t there?

Tsuoka was on the gold medallist team at the 2019 Universiade. Although he hasn’t played in many rugby sevens matches, he has remarkable ability and I regard him as one of the highly promising players. ISHIDA Kippei, a second-year university student, was a member of the bronze medal team at the Youth Olympic Games in 2018. These younger players are putting pressure on the more experienced players, which is bringing a desirable sense of competitiveness within the team. The Japan national team needs consistent reinforcement for Tokyo 2020 and beyond, and the intensifying pressure by younger players on senior players is a key factor that will help the team win a medal and grow further after the Games. It is an important agenda to develop such young athletes by cooperating with young team members.

TSUOKA Shotaro was on the gold medallist team at the 2019 Universiade.
TSUOKA Shotaro was on the gold medallist team at the 2019 Universiade.

Ability to make own decisions is essential for winning a medal

With the remaining time, what will you focus on to gain a medal?

What the team lacked most at Rio 2016 was the ability to make good decisions on their own. Situations change by the second during matches, and players are required to make their own decisions about how they should proceed. Matches develop especially quickly in rugby sevens (a total of 14 minutes for two halves), so it’s extremely difficult for coaches to get their directions reflected in their play. There are two issues: one is how the staff can change the flow of the game, and the other is how the players can communicate with each other and change their decisions in a timely manner. I have always told them that the most important thing for winning a medal is to make good decisions amid unpredictable developments, and the players have become more aware of this challenge.

Building on the experience at the Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan, what do you wish for the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Games?

After the Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan, rugby has gained wider popularity. I believe this is due to two reasons: One is the great performance displayed on the field by the Japan national team, and the other is the fact that people new to rugby learnt about the sport through the great performance [by the team]. In addition to the exciting aspect of rugby as a sport, people must have seen in the players the values of World Rugby - integrity, passion, solidarity, discipline and respect - that are specified in the World Rugby Playing Charter. In addition to producing results at the Tokyo 2020 Games, we should also conduct ourselves in ways that embody the essence of rugby. I consider this to be the greatest role we are expected to play.

Lastly, please give a message to all the sports fans including rugby fans.

We are grateful to have an environment where we can concentrate on rugby amid the pandemic. We hope to display excellent performance on and off the field so that we can convey what rugby is all about, even to a greater extent than at the World Cup in 2019.