Aya Nakajima excited to continue her journey with Rugby World Cup 2021 Coaching Internship Program

Aya Nakajima is relishing the opportunity she has to help Japan take the next step on their Rugby World Cup journey.

Five years ago, Nakajima was part of the Sakura 15s squad that returned to the tournament following a 15-year absence, playing four matches as Japan finished 11th in Ireland.

That experience was bittersweet, but it taught her the lessons she is now able to pass on to the new generation as Japan travel to Rugby World Cup 2021playing in 2022.

Earlier this month, it was announced that Nakajima would work alongside Japan coach Lesley McKenzie on the road to New Zealand as part of the RWC 2021 Coaching Internship Program.

Having worked as the squad’s team manager for a year prior to landing the internship, Nakajima knows the players well and has wasted little time getting to grips with her new responsibilities, her primary focus being the lineout.

“I’m so excited to shift my role into coaching,” she told World Rugby.

“I loved the lineout as a player and not only am I confident in that, but I like the lineout itself because… I’m a little bit nerdy! I like thinking about lineout, coaching lineout.”

It is not an area that has always been a particular focus for the Sakura 15s, but Nakajima believes it can be turned into an attacking platform as the team targets a place in the quarter-finals in New Zealand.

“The number of kicks [in women’s rugby] is increasing, so the importance of the lineout is increasing as well,” she added.

“For Japan, as everyone knows, we are a little bit shorter, shorter than the other teams so many of our girls don’t have confidence in the lineout.

“But I think we can use the lineout as our weapon because we are very quick, and we have our own language and so we can use our own techniques.

“I think its importance is very huge, especially in the Japanese team.”

Harsh lessons

Nakajima’s own oval-ball journey began in 2009, the same year that sevens became an Olympic sport, when she joined the Japan women’s program aged 23.

Six years later, the squad achieved its goal by qualifying for the Olympic Games and 12 months on Nakajima was part of the team that finished 10th at Rio 2016.

The joy she derived from running into space in sevens was only outweighed, however, by the pleasure she took from the contact of 15s.

Nakajima made her test debut during the qualifying process for RWC 2014, and four months after appearing in Rio helped her country end their long wait for a place at the showpiece 15s tournament.

Following so long away from the Rugby World Cup, though, the former second-row admits the squad found it tough to adjust to the level required once they got to Ireland.

“The experience as a player at the World Cup is a little bit bitter for me,” she said. “I’d never played against an overseas team, other than [from] Asia.

“I had a lot of experience in sevens, but it was a completely different game, and they (the opposition) knew the game a lot. We were a little bit skilful but didn’t know the game at all.

“It was the first time in 15 years [that we’d played at] the World Cup, so all of us, we didn’t know what international rugby was.

“But we learned from that World Cup and many of us have played abroad now, so we are all learning.”

Exciting progress

Nakajima herself enjoyed two short spells playing in Australia and New Zealand and is looking forward to catching up with friends she made in Brisbane and Whanganui at RWC 2021.

And she is proud of how Japan have developed as a team in the last five years. So much so, in fact, that despite still playing club rugby she baulks at the suggestion that she could make a surprise return to test rugby.

“Not as a player or coach, but as a person, I’m really excited by the progress of this team,” she said.

“We are just growing, so I’m so excited to be a part of the Japanese team again for the next World Cup.”

So, what would be considered success for Nakajima and Japan in New Zealand? The Sakura 15s have been drawn in Pool B of RWC 2021, alongside Canada, the USA and Italy.

Having lost to the Azzurre as a player in the RWC 2017 ninth-place semi-final, coming up against them as a coach offers Nakajima a shot at revenge.

“We want to go to the quarter-finals, of course,” she said. “But I was beaten by Italy at the last World Cup, so that is one of my targets.”

Whatever happens in October, Nakajima will be an able guide for Japan’s exciting young squad.

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