Try and
try again

Canadian coach for Japan women’s national rugby
team learns and teaches by losing and winning

Hailing from Fort Nelson, British Columbia, Lesley McKenzie is a former Canadian international player with 25 caps. She has played in two Women’s Rugby World Cups: in 2006 and 2010.

She started coaching for her alma mater, the University of British Columbia (UBC) in 2008, while she was still playing. She later moved to New Zealand, where she worked as a girls’ development co-coordinator for Wellington Rugby Football Union and a game development officer for Wanganui Rugby Football Union.

McKenzie first came to Japan in 2018 to serve as an assistant coach for the Japan women’s national rugby sevens team (the Sakura 7s). In January 2019, she was appointed head coach of Japan women’s rugby 15s team, the Sakura 15s. She now has her sights set on Women’s Rugby World Cup 2021 and had been developing the next generation of female coaches in Japan.

McKenzie believes that Japan’s miracle win over South Africa at the men’s Rugby World Cup 2015 provides her players with the perfect inspiration to achieve greatness. To learn more about her rugby journey and her connection to her players, The Canadian met up with McKenzie on the rugby pitch in Ryugasaki, Ibaraki Prefecture, during the Sakura 15s official training camp in July, before they went to Australia later that month to play a warm up game and two test matches.

At what age did you start rugby?

I was 16 and at high school when I started play-ing rugby. I didn’t really play anything seriously until I got to university, so I was 18 when I dropped everything else to focus on rugby. I grew up in a really small town in northern Canada — there weren’t a lot of towns nearby, and there weren’t a lot of sports on offer except for hockey, basketball, volleyball and a bit of soccer. But I was always outside doing other things.

I wasn’t into team sports until I moved down south to bigger cities. By then everyone was good at something except for me! So, I had to try something that was totally new, because I’m really competitive — I wanted to be good at something. So, I chose something that I could do well at if I worked hard.

What is your earliest rugby memory?

I would say winter training at the University of British Columbia (UBC). It was dark and there was lots of snow coming down. I started in January and I remember the mud and dirt, and lots of running. It was quite intense, be-cause I was young and shy, and there were lots of con-fi-dent people running around who knew what they were doing and wanted to show you that you didn’t belong there.

It was good though; it was good. UBC rugby was great for me. I played several years there, and that’s where I did both of my university degrees. It’s a wonderful rugby program — really good people come out of there, and there are great coaches there. I did classics at UBC, and I did my master’s in classical literature. I was going to do my PhD in that field or continue playing rugby.

To be honest, I was not good at mixing education with rugby. I wanted to just focus on one thing, and I threw the other out. I don’t know what I would be doing for work if I didn’t play rugby.

How often are you with the Sakura 15s, and how do you communicate with them?

We see each other once a month in camp, so we are together for between two and a half to five days at a time. One of the things that is really important for me as a coach is to develop my methods of communication, because there is going to be difficulty with me speaking very little Japanese at the moment. Clearly communication and developing relationships are so important when you are far away. You want to make sure there is clear messaging and the players feel comfortable approaching you about things. That is a real priority for me, so I’ve told the team right from the start that they can use any kind of social media to contact me so that we can address any questions or feedback they might have. I think it’s an adjustment for some of them because they are quite shy. But it’s important for me that they feel able to keep the lines of communication open, remove any sort of misconceptions and build some trust.

Another way we Sakura 7s and Sakura 15s communicate is through a system called the IPP (Individual Performance Plan) in camp. The players go through a set of cards that are re-la-ted to different athletic competencies. It’s not just about sports but life as well — so it could be about life balance, resources or relationships as well as scrum or tackle. They give themselves a score about where they think they sit, so that’s a really good conversation generator. They are doing it almost with the feeling of playing a card game. It’s really cool, because it actually gives me a picture of where they think they stand in these different areas, and it also gives me the ability to give appropriate advice.

It is a real pleasure to coach Japanese rugby players … we don’t find that kind of player everywhere.

What would you say are the strengths of Japanese rugby players?

They work hard. They will do every-thing they can to give you what you’ve asked of them. They are fit and they have generally really good catch-and-pass skills. They train a lot. They are pretty much tireless, and they won’t complain.

It is a real pleasure to coach Japanese rugby players for those reasons — we don’t find that kind of player everywhere. I think there is also a good sense of humour in the group and a good sort of support for each other, which is really nice.

What are the plans for the training camp?

Our focus now for the training camp is build-ing a platform for Australia. We are going to play two test matches and a warm up game there. But in terms of the big picture, the image that we’ve chosen to go forward with is the idea of the wave — we call it the Sakura Wave.

It signifies one big moment of gathering that we can build to: everyone contributes to it and it’s really powerful. It can be fluid and it can work through any pathway it needs to follow to go somewhere. Ultimately that’s the image we want to build toward qualification for World Cup 2021. In 2021, if we can get through the qualification pro-cess, that’s exactly where we want the wave to be breaking.

How do you handle losses, and what is there to be learned from them?

It’s never easy to get over a loss, but with young athletes you have to recognize you are in the development stage and they are learning, even after losses. To be fair, the losses are more educational than wins in the big picture. They might give you more than a win does in terms of self-awareness, reflection and what you can do to improve, so you have to welcome all of those opportunities to make yourselves better.

For myself, I believe that losing has made me a better player. Of course, there are many con-flic-ting studies in sports sciences saying that winning can make you better or losing can make you better, but you have to be flexible. You just have to be able, as a coach, to turn a win or a loss to the best possible advantage for the players.

We might get some real lessons in Australia, and in the big picture it’s great for us if we do. [The Australian team beat Japan in both test matches, 34–5 on July 13 and 46–3 on July 19.]

What’s the next goal?

I want to get this team to the 2021 Women’s Rugby World Cup and then win it. That’s my next goal. And, of course, I am very much look-ing forward to the Rugby World Cup 2019 and the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Japan.

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