Sakura Fifteen Stars Making Their Mark Around the World

As preparations for Japan’s international test season get set to begin over the coming months, five Sakura Fifteen players are currently playing top-flight club rugby in the UK and New Zealand. With England’s Premiership Women’s Rugby season running since mid-November and New Zealand’s Super Rugy Aupiki hosting its third round this weekend, the five Japanese players are making their presence felt across both competitions.

In England, flyhalf, Minori Yamamoto (28-caps) is playing with Sale Sharks following two seasons at Worcester Warriors, while 16-cap utility forward, Kie Tamai plays for the Ealing Trailfinders in London. Kanako Kobayashi, the 25-year-old, hard-running centre with 12 national team caps, has also returned to the Exeter Chiefs for her second season. She played for the Devon based club in 2021/22, but missed the entire 2022/23 season due to injury.


Last weekend, Kobayashi put in a three-try, Player of The Match performance as the Exeter Chiefs demolished the Loughborough Lighting 43-7. Starting the match from the bench, Kobayashi came on in the 12th minute as an injury replacement and soon made her presence felt, scoring her first try 10-minutes later. She crossed the chalk again 10-minutes into the second half and then notched up her hat trick with 2 minutes remaining on the clock.


After 14 rounds played, Kobayashi’s Exeter Chiefs sit in third place on the Premiership table, while the Ealing Trailfinders sit back in sixth place. The Sale Sharks round off the bottom of the table in ninth place having tasted victory only once this season, beating London’s Harlequins in their second-round match on November 25.

With the competition set to pause until May for the Women’s Six Nations, the Japanese contingent will be looking to contribute as much as possible in the competition’s final four rounds, with Exeter looking to be genuine title contenders, while Ealing and Sale look to move up the ladder and finish the season strongly.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world in New Zealand, hooker, Nijiho Nagata, with 12 national team caps is the latest to join the overseas contingent after being brought in as injury cover for the Auckland Blues. She joins 40-test veteran and the Sakura Fifteen’s most capped player, Seina Saito who is playing this season for the Hamilton based Chiefs Manawa as the first two Japanese players to play in New Zealand’s elite club competition.


Last weekend the Blues hosted the Chiefs in Auckland, with both teams coming into the match undefeated following victories in their first-round matches. A small piece of Japanese rugby history was made when Nagata and Saito started opposite each other, both in the number 16 jersey as their team’s reserve hookers. Both players came onto the field as replacements in the second half and following a hard-fought match, the visitors got the better of their hosts with Saito’s Chiefs coming home 10-17 against the Blues to go top of the table.

With only six home and away rounds in the four-team competition, and with the final to be contested on April 13, both players will have time enough to return to Japan ahead of the Sakura Fifteen’s international test season. After having spent time playing alongside and against World Champion Black Ferns players, both Japanese forwards will be looking to bring this new knowledge and experience back to their Japanese clubs and to the national team.

Commenting on her time in New Zealand, Seina Saito said: “I’m really enjoying playing rugby with top-level players, including many Black Ferns. It’s a great experience to play alongside and against these great players. I’m really interested in how Kiwis work together and build their teams, how they communicate and how they spend their time off the field. It’s different to how we do things back in Japan, so I want to understand this better and bring some of that experience back to Japanese women’s rugby.”


Akane Kagawa, JRFU Director of Women’s Rugby added:

“We are delighted that five of our current internationals are playing rugby in two of the most challenging competitions in the world. Not only are they out there competing, but they’re also making a real difference to their teams, both on and off the field. This experience and the transfer of rugby knowledge will be invaluable for the game back here in Japan. While I am sure they are all enjoying their time abroad, they are also doing a great service for Japanese rugby, and they are representing all Japanese women players with pride, passion, and determination.”