Mana Furuta eager to help bring women’s rugby into spotlight in Japan

After mixing with some of the top players in women’s rugby in Australia’s Super W competition, Japan international Mana Furuta is looking to share her knowledge with her teammates on the national team and make the Sakura Fifteen a force on the world stage.

The 24-year-old Fukuoka Prefecture native joined the Canberra-based Brumbies on loan from her Japanese club early this year, and is now taking part in the national squad’s Australian tour ahead of the Rugby World Cup in October.

Japan, ranked 12th in the world, will play test matches against 21st-ranked Fiji, fifth-ranked Australia and an invitational Barbarians side in May.

“I want to utilize my skills and experience and contribute to the national team,” said Furuta, who plays at center.

Standing 167 centimeters and weighing 69 kilograms, Furuta is slight compared to the 100-kg women she regularly plays with and against.

Despite her size deficit, she has grown as a rugby player in training games against bigger and stronger opponents, and sees sharpening her rugby education in Australia as a great opportunity.

“(When playing against big players) I am able to react before they do. I pretend every match is a World Cup match,” she said.

Furuta’s father is a former rugby player and had a huge influence on her development as an athlete. Since she was young, Furuta remembers chasing a rugby ball and loving to be active.

She started her professional career with women’s rugby sevens side Arukas Queen Kumagaya in 2020, then joined Tokyo Sankyu Phoenix in 2021. She has nine caps with the Japanese national team in the 15-a-side version of rugby.

Furuta tore her right anterior cruciate ligament in 2016 and did the same to her left knee in 2020, but made her comeback from those serious injuries to start in all three games in Japan’s end-of-year tour of Europe last November.

She scored her first test try in Japan’s narrow 15-12 defeat to Ireland in the tour finale.

As they prepare for the World Cup in New Zealand, postponed from 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Sakura Fifteen are looking to emulate their male counterparts and put women’s rugby in the spotlight.

The men’s national side, led by head coach Jamie Joseph, reached its first World Cup quarterfinal in 2019 on home soil, with the team’s success inspiring the nation.

Women’s national head coach Lesley McKenzie, in contrast, is overseeing an inexperienced squad containing 10 players yet to earn their first caps.

Women’s rugby still has relatively little exposure in Japan and elsewhere, but Furuta believes it has major growth potential.

“I imagined how great it would be if we can inspire a nation like (the men’s World Cup squad) did,” she said.

“I want to be part of an epic sports moment too.”

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