2023 – A Vintage Year for Sakura Fifteen Rugby

On October 27 in Cape Town, the Sakura Fifteen left the field following the final whistle in their last test match of 2023. They had just played Scotland in their third and final match of World Rugby’s new WXV2 tournament. Although the 38-7 scoreline indicated a heavy defeat to the eighth ranked Scots, the match brought the curtain down on what was a watershed season for the Sakura Fifteen and Japanese women’s rugby.

Across the year the Sakura Fifteen played nine test matches – winning seven and losing two. They recorded victories against Kazakhstan, Italy, and Samoa and two-match series wins over Spain and Fiji. Their only losses came at the end of the year in the WXV where they fell to Italy and Scotland. Across their nine fixtures, they scored 292 points and conceded just 191, for an impressive +101 positive points difference.

Commenting at the conclusion of the season, Japan Head Coach Lesley McKenzie said:
“We played nine games this year which is unprecedented for us outside a World Cup year, winning seven and losing two. We took a lot of lessons from those two losses, including some clear points we can move forward on. WXV was really important for us as a tournament experience in terms of learning key lessons in a less consequential year than getting knocked out of a World Cup because we didn’t learn those lessons earlier.”

The Sakura Fifteen came into 2023 off the back of a mixed bag of results in 2022 in which they recorded a 50% win-rate across the ten matches they played that season. In October, they arrived at the World Cup in New Zealand with five wins from seven matches, including an historic 29-10 victory over Ireland in Tokyo. However, their World Cup campaign was disappointing, going down to Canada, the USA and Italy in all three of their pool matches. By contrast, 2023 can be seen as a major step forward with a win rate of 78%. The Sakura Fifteen also came to the WXV in South Africa with an impressive six-match winning streak.

“This year was great for our development in that we played teams that were within our reach, but for which we still had to work really hard,” continued McKenzie. “The two, two-match series against Spain and Fiji were really different to each other. The Spanish were fit, fast and played a sevens style, while Fiji by contrast were very physical. Italy on the other hand showed their tactical experience and played with great flare and skill. The profile of these three teams meant we were within reach of getting those wins, yet none of them were easy beats. The teams were not in a position to flog us either, so that was a real sweet spot for our development.”

McKenzie was effusive is her praise of World Rugby’s initiative in hosting the inaugural WXV tournament. “The WXV was hugely important for us as a team and programme. What I was most impressed with was that the players learned more and more each week of the tournament. We had time together that allowed us to focus on the things we needed to improve – the things you become more and more aware of as a young team, still growing into its shoes.

“We’re creating more attacking opportunities within the opposition 22 than we’ve been able to previously and that’s down to understanding how we can best fit our attack to suit our team profile. With some of the opportunities we didn’t convert into points, those are the ones that the girls will regret because they were numerous in both first halves of the two games we lost. We probably didn’t treat possession with the care we could have and were a little reckless, showing inexperience and youthful response to opportunities. This is something we need to get a handle on if we want to be competitive in those big games.”

Finally, McKenzie shared her thoughts on where she feels Japan rugby needs to focus to take the next step in their progression. “The domestic game in Japan doesn’t develop the lineout, attack, and defence skills we see from countries with established elite club competitions. It’s an area of literacy that Japan lacks in women’s fifteens, and it continues to be our Achilles heel. Our experiences this year provided a massive lesson for us in terms of how we can convert pressure from these areas into points, while preventing that pressure from being converted into points against us. These are the lessons that are inflicted at the elite international level and which we need to come to terms with as we continue to grow.”

Sakura Fifteen 2023 Results

2023 WXV2 South Africa Autumn Tour to Europe
Scotland: October 27, 2023 (L) 38-7 Cape Town
Samoa: October 21, 2023 (W) 10-32 Cape Town
Italy: October 13, 2023 (L) 28-15 Stellenbosch

2023 Sakura Fifteen Italy Tour
Italy: October 1, 2023 (W) 24-25 Parma

Taiyoseimei Japan Rugby Challenge Series 2023
Fiji: September 16, 2023 (W) 41-36 Chichibunomiya, Tokyo
Fiji: September 10, 2023 (W) 29-24 Japan Base, Fukuoka

2023 Sakura Fifteen Spain Tour
Spain: July 15, 2023 (W) 19-27 Guadalajara
Spain: July 9, 2023 (W) 12-44 Madrid

Asia Rugby 2023 Women’s Championship Final
Kazakhstan: May 28, 2023 (W) 0-72 Almaty