Whenever Chiharu Nakamura takes to a rugby pitch you always know what you’re going to get, a player who leads by example with her commitment to the Sakura Sevens cause unquestionable and has a fierce determination to win.
These qualities have often seen her competing for the DHL Impact Player award on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series when Japan played, be it as a core or invitational team, and even when the Sakura Sevens found wins hard to come by.
Nakamura is a player with strong presence and leadership in a Sakura Sevens team made up largely of younger players, many in their teens. She has served as captain since 2012, a year after earning her first call-up to the national side, including at two Rugby World Cup Sevens, in 2013 and 2018, and the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
The 32-year-old forward from the Kanagawa Prefecture is now preparing for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games that have been postponed to July 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
On top of that, though, she has also taken on a new role, as player/general manager for Nanairo Prism Fukuoka, a brand-new women’s rugby club in Kurume, in the Fukuoka Prefecture, which was formed in December in cooperation with Kurume University.
Thanks to the relationship with the university, the club are able to help their players prepare for their post-playing days by giving them access to facilities or courses. For example, a player can attend an extension course to study as an auditor or part-time student in a university programme, enabling them to think about their future.
The club also arranges job opportunities with their sponsor companies for players, and some of the players have already started working for one of them. With that system, they can earn a wage and focus on playing the game.
The name Nanairo means seven colours as in a rainbow to indicate variety and Nakamura says the club would like to meet the demands of its players as much as they can to make the place better for them.
“I’d like to make the club as an organisation to open up possibilities for the female players to help them prepare their second career,” Nakamura told World Rugby.
Nakamura has seen many cases with female athletes, not only from rugby but also from other amateur sports, who would quit their sport after reaching or failing to reach their major objective like an Olympic Games having worked so hard for many years.
“I know that many female athletes would often retire without having got options ready for their post-playing days. I’d like to provide our rugby players with not only playing opportunities but also the environment to think about their second career while securing their financial part.”
New options for players
The notion of introducing the new club with such options for female players came from her various experiences on and off the field. The latter included attending a couple of tournaments with the Japan men’s sevens side on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series as well as visiting training facilities in the USA, serving as a member of the Athlete Committee for the Japan Olympic Committee.
According to the Japan Rugby Football Union (JRFU), Japan has 5,082 female rugby players and 72 women’s rugby teams registered with them as of March 2020, out of 96,713 players and 2,879 teams in all categories.
Nakamura believes that the number of female players can increase if they can set better options for their future after playing, something that will also help promote women’s rugby in Japan.
“I believe there are more than one way to raise the value of women’s rugby, as in a case you can choose a route for mountain climbing among a few. You can find Route A in winning a medal at the Olympics with Sakura Sevens, for example, but you can also find Route B with a club, like in my case with Nanairo Prism. I don’t think it bad to have options and you can take one way or the other depending on a situation.”
Nakamura says she wants to do something for rugby – the game she’s fallen in love with since she started playing only shortly before graduating from her university in 2011.
“I like rugby and have grown up as a person through playing the sport. I would like to do something for rugby’s development,” she said. “I would like to spend my life making it possible for rugby-playing children to feel that they want to join us to play the sport.”
Unexpected way to start
The start of Nanairo Prism Fukuoka, however, turned out far from what Nakamura had expected.
The club has players including Haruka Hirotsu, Chisato Yokoo and Miyu Shirako, all Sakura Sevens’ Olympic candidates, and head coach in Yusaku Kuwazuru, who played for Japan men’s side that stunned the world to finish fourth at Rio 2016.
Nanairo Prism has a blueprint for their on-field development, aiming to get promoted to the women’s top flight in the country, Taiyo Seimei Women’s Sevens Series sponsored by Taiyo Life Insurance Company. A team has to go through the Regional Women’s Sevens and finish among the top four to qualify for the promotion play-offs to win a berth in the Series.
With the outbreak of COVID-19, however, they started at their new club without gathering together face-to-face, forced to stay at home to avoid infection. The Japanese government then declared the State of Emergency in early April, which ran until it was lifted by all prefectures on 25 May. During this time the team connected with the players and coaches through online training sessions every week while attempting to keep their fitness as much as possible.
The COVID-19 pandemic may have caused some delay in their plans, but no changes to their goal. Nakamura and her company are working hard to give a more solid foundation to their club, recruiting players and preparing the environment in consultation with Kurume University.
“I’m taking things positively,” said Nakamura. “I naturally like thinking and creating something that makes people get excited.”
Heading to the Olympics
Her positive approach has also been applied to the Olympic Games. When the sevens game made its Olympic debut at Rio 2016, Sakura Sevens took part in the tournament only to finish 10th out of 12 teams with a record of one win and four losses.
Nakamura was obviously disappointed with the results but kept asking herself what went wrong over and over again, ultimately realizing that she needed to change her own approach to the Games.
“My initial aim was to raise the value of rugby by winning a medal at the Olympics, but that had been replaced by just winning a medal in the tournament,” she recalled.
Keeping that experience in mind, Nakamura said she will not put too much focus on the results alone in order to make her initial aim come true at the rearranged Tokyo 2020 Games next year.
The picture she has got now is something from the Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan.
“That was the best successful example to me,” Nakamura said, “People in Japan rated the value of rugby self. I would like to see something like that happen with us at the coming Olympics.
“To do so, it is significant to put the focus on what we want to achieve and what we want to leave in people’s memory. It would be perfect if that comes along with a gold medal at the end, of course. I would like to feel good and happy about the process when I look back after the tournament.”
Nakamura added: “I felt puzzled first when I heard that [the Games’ postponement], but then I thought that has also postponed my retirement and I can still have time to play rugby under positive pressure to make my game develop more.”
With her positive attitude, she finds a bright side to the current difficult period that has stopped all rugby activities with not only her new club but also the Sakura Sevens.
“Well, we had been working non-stop before it came to a halt,” Nakamura said of the Sakura Sevens, “so that this has given us a time to work on the maintenance of our team.”
She is working on recovery from fatigue and paying close attention to her physical build-up. At the same time, she is looking at the team build-up ahead of the Olympics.
“This coming Olympics will probably be the one with a great significance in history. In a tournament like that, I would like people to pay attention to what sevens rugby can offer. Keeping that in mind, I would like to play the game then.”