David Hulmes, FINA Press Correspondent in Japan

Japan’s men have one eye on an historic appearance at Rio 2016 as they prepare to host five other teams at this week’s Intercontinental Tournament.

They are also looking to secure a place at the Super Final of the FINA Men’s Water Polo World League, as a final stepping stone on their way to a first Olympic Games appearance in 32 years.

“Once you get through the Intercontinental Tournament, there’s a chance of playing the great European teams in the World League,” said Japan coach Yoji Omoto at Monday’s press conference.

“Since we’re going to Rio, that would be great practice and preparation. We’re planning on winning at least two or three matches this week to go through to the World League.”

Fellow Olympic qualifiers Australia, Brazil and the United States, alongside China and Kazakhstan, are also in action at the Intercontinental Tournament, which starts Tuesday at Yokohama International Pool.

“I’m especially looking forward to playing teams like Australia and Brazil here, because they’re also going to Rio, said Japan captain Yusuke Shimizu.

However, the Japanese camp are well aware that securing one of the four Super Final places on offer this week will not be plain sailing. Australia beat them 3-0 in a three-match Test series Down Under last November, while Brazil took bronze in last year’s World League, and the USA have a strong-looking squad.

“Of this week’s opponents, Australia are the strongest, then the USA,” said Omoto. “I’m really looking forward to playing those two countries because we’ve never beaten them. Also, we’ve had a lot of practice games against Brazil, and they have a good record against us too.”

“We’ve played Australia many times, they’re huge and speedy. I will tell my players to be patient and wait on their shots, and to play percentage shots. It’s been nearly a year since I saw Brazil. They have changed dramatically, got more physicality and some new players. They’ve made a lot of progress. Since Ratko Rudic came in as coach they've learnt to become more patient. In my view they are now more formidable.”

Shimizu, Japan’s captain, said: “Australia are tactically similar to Japan, they rely on the counter. The one difference is they are much bigger. As for Brazil, they have several key players who are good passers, so we have to be careful not to give them clear sight lines.”

Omoto pointed to a technical poser that Japan face this week, as the event takes place in an experimental 25m x 20m playing area.

“It’s a 5m short course, so it’s difficult for us to use our usual counter-attacks as a major weapon, because there’s not much space to work with. As such, there’s a real disadvantage for the Japanese team in using a 25m pool as opposed to the standard 30m pool,” said Omoto. "So we’re going to have to concentrate on our defending, so as not to get beat. Also, we’ll probably have to rely on perimeter shots, which we’re not so good at."

Rio 2016 comes just two months after the FINA Men’s Water Polo World League showdown, and that will be a step into the unknown for Japan’s men, whose last Olympic appearance was in Los Angeles in 1984.

Australia, hosts Brazil and Japan have been drawn in Group A at the Olympics, while the United States will compete in Group B.

“No one has any experience of the Olympics so we don’t know what to expect, but we’re not just going there for a training exercise. We aim for at least two wins in the group, and hopefully that can get us through to the quarter finals,” said Omoto.

Shimizu is trying not to get distracted by the fact Tokyo will host the following Olympics four years later.

“I want to play as if this will be my last Olympic Games, not to think too much about Tokyo 2020, take one step at a time, and see how we can perform against the best teams in Rio,” he said.

Shimizu comes from Kumamoto, a region devastated last month by two powerful earthquakes that claimed dozens of lives and caused major structural damage, and hopes his performances in the pool can lift spirits in his home town, some 800 miles south of Tokyo.

“I hope that by playing well, it will encourage the people back home who are suffering, and give them hope, and that it will inspire the younger generation to become involved in water polo,” said Shimizu.

The six teams at this week’s Intercontinental Tournament play each other on the first five days.

Group placings after the round-robin stage will determine Sunday’s participants in the play-offs for 5th/6th, 3rd/4th and the final.