The Japan Wheelchair Rugby Team captured consecutive bronze medals at both the Rio de Janeiro (2016) and Tokyo (2020) Paralympic Games. For the 24th Wheelchair Rugby Japan Championship, the athletes who played in both paralympic games as well as those expected to play in the coming games in Paris were divided into eight teams to determine the best team in Japan.
This was the first Wheelchair Rugby Japan Championship in three years. The games had been suspended since the 21st Japan Championship in December 2019. Chiba Port Arena in Chiba, Japan was the site of this year’s playoffs. These were the first games with spectators in quite some time, and the three-day tournament was overflowing with excitement.
At the championships, the eight teams that had survived the qualifying contests faced off. Teams were divided into Pool A and Pool B and round-robin preliminary rounds held of the four teams in each pool. The top two teams in each then advanced to the finals. Athletes and staff were particularly busy from the very first day because of the marathon set of games, in which the top three teams also met in title matches.
AXE, which Journal-ONE covered closely, had been training hard since right after New Years up to the tournament. In their bid to be the top team, they practiced their teamwork and prepared to meet the opposing teams.
In the opening game, AXE was paired against RIZE CHIBA, on which Tomoaki Imai plays. Imai was a bronze medalist at both the Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo Paralympics. Journal-ONE readers are familiar from our coverage of the team during the Chiba Rotary Club Cup and interviews at the Matsudo City Event.
There was concern that familiar faces on both teams were absent with RIZE CHIBA missing its point getter Tetsuro Yamaguchi and AXE its key defensemen Akio Ogawa. Our report on the match also looks closely at how their absences affected the games.
AXE took control of the game in the first quarter. The team’s offense centered around Soshi Aoki pairing up alternately with Yasushi Mineshima and Nick Kovac to score.
In the second quarter, the combination of low pointers Kotaro Kishi and Takahisa Yamaguchi, both bronze medalists in the Rio de Janeiro Paralympics, as well as the combination of Masayuki Haga and Kae Kurahashi, bronze medalists in the Tokyo games, together with other famed players completely shut down RIZE CHIBA’s offense! During the playoffs, midfielder Jungo Hashimoto displayed a barrage of fantastic moves. The team was in peak form with AXE in the lead 32 to 8 at the end of the first half.
As mentioned, this tournament was open to spectators. Watching the games was a group of elementary school students from Chiba City, who came to cheer their team on. In the first half, they caused a roar with their enthusiastic cries whenever Haga and Mineshima cut quickly as well as when Nick Kovac made a magnificent tackle.
In the third quarter, RIZE CHIBA switched from the pass-and-cut technique to rally a comeback. The crowd quickly turned their applause to plays well received by professional players. The elementary school students erupted in thunderous applause at CHIBA RIZE’s combination of magnificent defense executed by Takayuki Norimatsu in shutting down opposing team’s offense and CHIBA RIZE’s passes connecting one-by-one as the team struggled to come back without its high pointer!
Feeling for the first time in a while the fans’ support, both teams gave it their all as they fought to the very end with AXE winning 63 to 17. The arena cheered and applauded the players of both teams, who smiled as they shook hands in response to the thunderous ovation.
After the game, Imai talked about his state of mind and how he had braced himself for a close contest, saying, “I knew Yamaguchi wouldn’t be able to play because he had a wheelchair basketball game at the same time.”
On the one hand, Imai revealed he felt playing in the tournament was very helpful for improving their teamwork, “We had a lot of new players and the experience of playing under pressure in a tournament like the Japan Championship will help our team grow.” Smiling, he added, “Just because it might be difficult to advance to the finals, that doesn’t mean we should give up. Switching our objective from winning to improving the success of our offense further motivated our team members.” This Japan legend, who has taken charge of not only his own growth but the team’s development as well, is always thinking about how to raise the level of wheelchair Rugby as a whole and make the games more exciting.
AXE, which played a series of games, faced off with the Okinawa Hurricanes. Head coach Hideki Nakatani said the Okinawan team was the “greatest challenge to AXE advancing to a top spot.” This was the first time for Journal-ONE to see the Okinawa Hurricanes play. The team has many quick and powerful players and is led by Canadian superstar Zak Madell.
In their practice sessions right before the Japan Championship, AXE chose Daisuke Ikezaki, a bronze medalist at both the Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo Paralympics, and Rio Kanda-Kovac, brought in from the Canadian national team, to guard Zak and practiced how to best execute such a defense.
After the game, Haga said, “Zak had an extremely demanding schedule as he rushed to Japan, so the initial stage of the game was key when he wouldn’t be up to par on account of his travel from Okinawa.” Right from the first quarter, the game unfolded as they planned with the team containing Zak.
During the game, tremendous applause exploded from junior high school students, who traveled from Chiba City to watch the game, at the play of Mineshima and Haga. Both gave a furious effort throughout the entire game, creating space, passing and scoring.
AXE hung on doggedly against the Okinawa Hurricanes with quick passes from Nick Kovac to Mineshima and then Mineshima to Haga in post play as well as passing to Yamaguchi each time he filled a space. However, the Okinawa Hurricanes lived up to their reputation with Zak scoring quickly thanks to his strength, agile chair work, and skillful ball control. As the defense closed in on him, Shin Nakazato and Tomoshige Kabetani took up the slack, steadily adding points without a miss.
Seesawing as both teams pushed hard on offence and defense, the score at the end of the first half was a close 25 to 27 with AXE up by two points. Having watched the tight game without a moment for anyone to catch a breath, the crowd let out a huge sigh once the halftime break signaled.
As Norimatsu recalled later, “We were not able to score big in the crucial first half.” The Okinawa Hurricanes started to gradually add points and pull away. AXE took a timeout in the middle of the fourth quarter and substituted in Aoki, known for his stamina, in an attempt to rally the team, but lost 47 to 54 in the end, finishing the first day with one win and one loss.
AXE came into the second day one and one, and could not afford to lose. In the final preliminary round, they faced off against BLITZ.
BLITZ is also a powerhouse team with paralympians on its roster. The team was riding high with two wins, led by Hitoshi Ogawa, bronze medalist at the Tokyo games, and Shinichi Shimakawa, bronze medalist at both Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo. In an earlier match against the Okinawa Hurricanes, BLITZ won an exciting game that featured a thrilling back-and-forth matchup between Zac and Shimakawa.
In order to advance to the finals, AXE absolutely had to win this game.
In this match as well, Mineshima, who had been intensely playing the entire time, led the team as it took on BLITZ. In the first quarter, the two teams battled each other on both offense and defense as their key players matched up against one another. AXE’s defense exerted quick pressure to keep Shimakawa from moving around as he wanted. BLITZ’s strategy, on the other hand, was to closely guard Haga, not allowing him to pass into any open spaces. Once the first quarter began, the action was nerve-racking right from the start. The first quarter passed quickly, winding up with a close score of 10 to 11.
In the second quarter, the ferocity continued as both sides intercepted each other’s passes, but BLITZ gradually started to take control.
BLITZ steadily opened up a lead with Masahito Aratake intercepting AXE’s offensive specialty, the long pass.
When the teams returned for the third quarter after a half-time score of 19 to 24, BLITZ intercepted more long passes and moved ahead. AXE responded with tenacious defense, preventing Shimakawa, the driver of BLITZ’s offense, from getting the ball. Nevertheless, even with the tough defense at midcourt, BLITZ was able to take possession of the ball in open spaces to score and pull ahead by eight points. The third quarter ended with AXE down 20 to 36.
Just when everyone thought the game might end this way, AXE spurted ahead to catch up in the fourth quarter!
AXE successfully intercepted passes to take advantage of gaps in plays that BLITZ had used to control the tempo of the game in the first half. AXE improve the accuracy of their passes to score again. Just as in the first quarter, AXE advanced on offense and quickly came back to set up its defense.
As Shimakawa said, “In the end, we lost our stamina on account of the pressure AXE put on us. I made every effort to inspire the team, working to get back our concentration once again.” The arena again erupted into a tremendous applause at the fighting spirit as AXE followed close behind and tried to catch up to BLITZ, which ultimately managed to hold AXE off.
It was an exciting game to watch right down to the wire. AXE lost 45 to 49 and was unable to achieve its goal of advancing to the finals.
After the game, Norimatsu said, “We were able to hold our own on both offense and defense as planned in the game against Okinawa. We properly executed our strategy of using Mineshima and Haga to keep Zak from performing his best, but we made a few minor errors that kept us from taking control of the game in the early stages.”
Looking back on the season and feeling positive about improving the team’s ability, Norimatsu said, “I think that Head Coach Nakatani’s strategy caught on this year and the entire team got a lot stronger. That is evident in the results which show we made most of the final goals in the period.”
Referring to Aoki who has improved considerably more than other team members, Norimatsu said, “I think that it was really difficult for Soshi (Aoki) to move up his class by 1.0 for the SHIBUYA CUP. It is quite hard just to move up a class by half a point in wheelchair rugby. So, moving up by one whole point, well, I think that would probably break me. Soshi trained hard every day and he didn’t let anything stop him. Being selected to represent Japan has also given him more confidence as well.” Norimatsu seemed to take heart in the way that his kohai (junior) has been give it his all.
As for his own growth, Norimatsu showed that he is also passionate about improving, saying, “I still have much more room to improve my accuracy and distance when I inbound the ball.”
Looking back on the BLITZ game, Haga said, “In the previous game, BLITZ beat the Okinawa Hurricanes, so I was worried about the goal difference and wasn’t able to perform as good as I could have.”
Recalling the first day when a crowd filled the arena for the first time in several years, Haga spoke serenely, “We definitely feel more motivated when the fans are cheering. I hope many people will come out to support us tomorrow (last day when the final standings are determined).”
Looking back on this season, Haga said true to form, “This year, we have been a force on offense and defense with Nick Kovac in the lineup, and this has given us more latitude in how we compete. AXE is a team of adults, so one of the nice things about this team is that we don’t get overexcited and are able to face and overcome issues one by one.”
This season, Journal-ONE followed AXE closely to show how fascinating wheelchair rugby is. As we covered the team practicing and playing games, we got to know their techniques and strategies little by little. We found it to be a wonderful sport that people can follow, support, and enjoy, even if you don’t understand all of the rules.
Also, while covering AXE, we were able to interview some wonderful players and staff on other extraordinary teams such as RIZE CHIBA, TOHOKU STRMERS, and Freedom. Our coverage showed the truly wonderful and down-home side of everyone involved in wheelchair rugby.
We would also like to extend our hearty congratulations to Freedom which won its first Japan Championship and the TOHOKU STORMERS who came in second place in the 24th Wheelchair Rugby Japan Championship.
Our appreciation goes out to all the teams, players, and staff for their tremendous hard work!
Although the club teams have finished one season, the progress of the wheelchair rugby world still moves on as we get closer to the 2024 Paris Paralympics. The 2023 Japan Para Wheelchair Rugby Championships will be held here at Chiba Port Arena from February 2nd to the 5th.
At this international tournament where teams from four countries, Japan, Australia, United States, and France, will compete in a round-robin tournament, many of the athletes that Journal-ONE has covered will be competing, including Kurahashi and Norimatsu from well-known AXE, Imai of CHIBA RIZE, Shimakawa from BLITZ, Hashimoto of the TOHOKU STORMERS, Ike from Freedom, Ikezaki who enlivened the arena with his color commentary during the Japan Championship, and many outstanding athletes.
This tournament also will be open to the public so fans are welcome to attend. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to get a taste of the action at the Chiba Port Arena that we couldn’t catch during the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics?